Centrist holds key after Israel election
A former television news anchor whose new centrist party stormed to second place in Israel's election may well be the kingmaker holding the keys to the next coalition government.
The Yesh Atid (There's a Future) party led by Yair Lapid (49), won 19 seats in parliament in yesterday's vote, second only to the bruised victor, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-wing Likud-Beitenu party plummeted to 31 seats from 42.
Only months after he took up active politics, Mr Lapid can now aspire to a powerful new role as a senior partner in Mr Netanyahu's next coalition and tie-breaker in a 120-seat parliament split roughly down the middle between right and left.
As leader of the fledgling party, Mr Lapid has pressed on with a fight, once championed by his late father, a cabinet minister, against the influence Israel's growing ultra-Orthodox Jewish community wields on many aspects of life in the diverse country.
The salt-and-pepper-haired politician's platform, chiselled looks and pledges of change attracted younger and middle-class voters who resent the exemptions from military service granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews and their reliance on state welfare.
"Where's the money?" his simple campaign slogan asked, pointing to the ultra-Orthodox, business monopolies and state investment in far-flung Jewish settlements as the answer.
Mr Lapid has pledged to abolish army conscription exemptions for Jewish seminary students and widen the tax base by bringing more of the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 10 per cent of Israel's 7.8 million people, into the workforce.
A martial arts enthusiast, Mr Lapid's surprisingly strong showing in the vote will give him political muscle in negotiations with Mr Netanyahu on joining a governing coalition.
After the election, he urged Mr Netanyahu to build as broad a team as possible, signalling his readiness to talk.
The right-wing premier has said he hopes to bring a wide range of parties into his cabinet. How far he can reconcile those other potential partners with Mr Lapid is still unclear.
Mr Lapid built his secular-minded party with an unusual mix of public figures, including two moderate rabbis, an array of mayors and former municipal officials, an ex-head of Israel's Shin Bet security service and a fellow journalist.
In a pre-election interview with Reuters, he did not rule out joining his religious opponents in a Netanyahu-led coalition, but set conditions that may hamper the process.
Echoing his father, Yosef 'Tommy' Lapid, a Serbian-born Holocaust survivor, Mr Lapid spoke of a widening rift between Israel's secular majority and the ultra-Orthodox minority.
About 60 per cent of ultra-Orthodox men engage in full-time religious studies, keeping them out of the labour market and burdening the economy and state resources.