It’s a cold March night in Kfar Tavor, Israel. Okay, it’s not as cold as Des Moines but the two to three hundred people that assembled for the scheduled lecture welcome the heat inside the auditorium. There’s no apple pie and fried chicken and corn bread to go around. Here the self-hosted bar offers tea with lemon and mint leaves, turkish coffee, pretzels and rugelach pastry. By nine the crowd stops milling about and take their seats. I’m nursing a cough so I sit in the rear. A spokeswoman introduces the speaker: Yair Lapid.
Yair, age 49, steps onto the stage and under the lights. He’s dressed in his signature black clothes: black slacks, black shirt, black jacket. It has a slimming effect on this former amateur boxer. He’ not terribly tall but he commands attention. His good looks, solid jaw line, could sell Old Spice aftershave or a hedge fund. In his youth he sported a tank top, wavy black hair and a dangling cigarette from his lips, an Israeli enfante terrible. A microphone in hand he tells us briefly about the political journey that brought him to where he is – a contender in the upcoming Israel elections a year from now. If there’s a name to his future party, he’s not sharing it with us.
Earlier this year he resigned from his post as a much-watched TV anchor to pursue a political career. He’s still a columnist for Yediot, Israel’s most widely read paper. He wants change and he wants it now. He’s following in his late father’s footsteps, a former editor for Israel’s second largest daily newspaper and a later a parliament member.
Lapid is not a friend of slackers, of people getting a free ride. He says, “This school year 50% of all first graders will be Orthodox Jews and Arabs. What does that mean?” A brief silence. “In 18 years from now only 1 in 2 will serve in the Israeli military. What does it bode for our national security, for the fabric of our nation?”
Lapid moves smoothly from one subject to the next. If it’s rehearsed, it’s not noticeable. He speaks of the housing crisis and the recent Social Protest last summer, a camp made of tents and thousands of youngsters in Tel Aviv’s Rothchild Boulevard, a protest that gave rise to similar protests in Europe and in the U.S. “In Sweden it takes 40 salaries to buy a 3 bedroom home, in England 70. In Israel 138. What, is it twice as good here than it is in England?” He begins to question whether true market forces are at play in dictating prices. “Most of the land in Israel is government-owned.” He makes mention of the Arabs by way of a question. “How many new Arab settlements were established since 1948? The answer: none. They too are bursting at the seams.”
Mr. Atias, Israel’s Minister of Housing sees it differently. He’s the head of Jewish Home party. Because Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, and head of his party, Likud, needs Atias and his votes to run the country, he submitted to Atia’s excercise in “Fuzzy Math.” A young Israeli couple wanting to qualify for subsidized housing is awarded points for military service, national service. Atias upended the apple cart by introducing another criteria: “years of marriage.” To the unsuspecting, you’d think he wants to reward those who are stable and committed. To secular Israelis it smacks of insanity. Orthodox men and women don’t go the army, marry at 18. By age 28 they acquired 10 points. The secular Israeli who’d served in the military (awarded some points), finished at 21, went abroad for a year or two, completed his studies and shows up before the housing committee. Points earned: 4 to 8. Guess who gets into an apartment first?
“This irresponsible conduct has to stop,” Lapid says and scans the room. “In Brooklyn Orthodox Jews work. Why not here?” He’s preaching to the choir here, mostly secular, men and women of middle class, in their early 50s who remember Israel differently, not necessarily better, but different.
During the last election 12 parties received votes. Try and form a government with so many dancers. He’s pushing for constitutional reform. Presently voters vote for their favorite party, not the likely to win, knowing their chosen party will partner with another. Lapid wants the prime minister to come from the block with the most votes, to kick out the smaller guys, to do away with blackmail and horse-trading. To date, 2% of the vote gets a party into Kenesset (parliament). In the past Israel had parties for cab drivers, senior citizens. He wants to raise the bar to 6%, to create larger parties. And he doesn’t want the ruling party to constantly look over its back, to worry about a “no-confidence” vote that will bring down the government. Italy has had 60 governments since World War II. Lapid proposes a minimum of 2/3 vote to topple the government. “Let the government do its work.”
Lapid hates big government. I’m not sure if I’m coining a term here, but can he be called a “Jerusalem-outsider?” He surrounds himself with experts from education, business, science and defense. “Why does Germany get by with 16 ministers, France with 12, Switzerland with 7, and Israel with…36?”
I’m thinking: 35 to give instructions to the one guy changing a light bulb in the Kenesset?
He’s a social issues guy but he does veer into security matters and the future of Israel. “If we are to remain a majority Jewish state, we must support a two-state solution with the Palestinians. The present government doesn’t want to take responsibility. It’s too tough. It’s too boring. Let’s continue to kick the can down the stairs.” He’s not the first to sound the alarm, and he’s not the last to be labeled an alarmist.
I’m learning that while I lived in California, politics were equally explosive: abortion, gay rights, gun laws, separation of church and state, but to my mind, no matter how the country voted, it remained intact.
Can I say the same for Israel if 300,000 settlers in the Judea and Samaria (West Bank) are forced out in order to reach peace with the Arabs? What kind of peace will it be?
The lecture is over, many questions are taken from the audience. Applause. It’s now time for fundraising and enlistment to the cause. His spokeswoman at the podium says Lapid has 7000 volunteers. Boots on the ground? He wants more, to spread the word. He’s crisscrossing the country with his own car, pays for his own gas.
Yair Lapid is not stepping into the Iowa snow, but he’s getting ready for the next round without his boxing gloves. Lapid means “torch” in Hebrew. Will he succeed in chasing away shadows?