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New Israeli political star sets lofty expectations

Friday - 1/25/2013, 5:08pm  ET

DANIEL ESTRIN
Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) - Political newcomer Yair Lapid electrified Israel with his surprising success in this week's election and an Obama-like message of hope and change, and expectations are high.

The former TV talk show host will need to make strides on pressing economic ills and advance peace prospects with the Palestinians to avoid becoming another in a long line of centrists who have burst onto the political scene with great fanfare, only to flame out.

To avoid that fate, Lapid's Yesh Atid movement may have to temper the lofty expectations of the Israeli public, and will surely need to produce concrete results in Israel's Knesset, or parliament.

"Everyone at Yesh Atid is aware of the expectations and the responsibility which is upon us," said Dov Lipman, an American-born rabbi and incoming lawmaker from Lapid's party. "All of us, including our party leader, left other careers to enter the Knesset. We did so out of a sense of duty and a passion to change the country's course, and we plan to rise to the mandate we have been given to do so."

Pre-election polls predicted Lapid's party would win about a dozen of 120 parliament seats. Instead, the party, running in its first election, emerged as the country's second-biggest party with 19 seats. Israeli pollsters said a mass of undecided voters went with Lapid in the final days of the campaign, with roughly half of them coming from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's traditional base of support.

Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu party remains the largest parliamentary bloc with 31 seats, and he is expected to continue to serve as prime minister. But the faction's strength fell substantially, from 42 seats in the outgoing parliament, and Netanyahu has little choice but to form an alliance with Lapid to ensure a viable governing majority.

Though Lapid himself comes from Israel's high society _ he is a well-known media celebrity and the son of a former Cabinet minister _ he campaigned as an average citizen fighting for Israel's struggling middle class. He criticized the country's high cost of living, its expensive system of handouts and draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox seminary students, and to a lesser extent, Netanyahu's failure to advance peace efforts with the Palestinians.

The election, seen as a slap against Netanyahu, has made Lapid the talk of the nation and given him a honeymoon with Israel's normally contentious media. His coiffed silvery hair and wide grin have been plastered on the front pages of newspapers all week. Even Israel's usually brutal political cartoonists are accentuating his telegenic looks.

Netanyahu has already reached out to Lapid, calling for formation of a broad coalition. The two men spent two and a half hours in a face-to-face meeting this week, the beginning of an intensive period of negotiations in which Netanyahu will haggle with Lapid and other party leaders over political appointments and key policy goals.

Given its strong bargaining position, Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, is convinced it can make headway on two of the most intractable issues to bedevil the country: forcing ultra-Orthodox men to join their secular counterparts in performing compulsory military or national service; and pushing forward a peace treaty that would result in a Palestinian state.

These were two issues Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox and hawkish partners have until now been unable, or unwilling, to resolve.

"Yair Lapid has been clear that we will go to the opposition if the government is not committed to both," said Lipman. "We are confident that both can be achieved."

Doing so will not be easy. To ensure a parliamentary majority, Lapid and Netanyahu would need at least one other partner. The most likely candidates appear to be either smaller, ultra-Orthodox parties, which are sure to fight any reform in the draft law, or the pro-settler Jewish Home, which will resist any attempt to reach peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu's own bloc is dominated by hard-liners who oppose any concessions to the Palestinians. Lapid will have to use every ounce of his powers of persuasion to make progress on either front.

It's not the first time a party championing centrist views has marched onto the scene seeking to solve similar issues. All before him have failed, including Lapid's own father.

The late Joseph "Tommy" Lapid, also a journalist turned politician, led the liberal Shinui party from 1999-2006. In 2003 elections the party ran on a staunchly anti-religious platform, garnering 15 seats in parliament and making it Israel's third-biggest party. But it bolted the governing coalition when an ultra-Orthodox party joined, making it impossible to carry out its pledge to loosen the grip of religious interests on some state institutions. Shinui subsequently disappeared.

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