Melanie Phillips

1 February 2013

Lapid listened to Middle Israel

Published in: Jewish Chronicle

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Israel has not yet got over its astonishment at the result of the general election, which saw the propulsion to power of the political neophyte Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party.

As the haggling goes on to build a coalition under Binyamin Netanyahu, Lapid may have shot himself in the foot by his foolish boast, before even taking his Knesset seat, that he expects to become Prime Minister at the next election.

Most observers have concluded that, while Israeli voters had been expected to swing to the right they swung instead to the left.

Personally, I think this is to miss the point. It is not a matter of right and left. Lapid’s rise surely represented instead the voice of Middle Israel making itself heard.

Most of these voters did not repudiate Netanyahu. On the contrary, they seem to have relied on the fact that he would remain Prime Minister.

This meant they could park security issues altogether. Bibi could be relied on as well as anyone to safeguard the country against Iran.

And the issue of a Palestinian state was now off the table for the foreseeable future in the absence of any credible negotiating partner, Mahmoud Abbas having torn up his Oslo undertakings by attempting a unilateral declaration of statehood.  

So Middle Israel turned its attention inwards to the other things that really concern it -- the burdens dumped on the country by the refusal of the haredim [ultra-orthodox] to serve in the army or work for a living; the pressures on the middle-class; and the crazy and corrupt political system.

Lapid stood for addressing all these concerns. As a total outsider to politics, his very inexperience made him attractive to the many who have become so deeply alienated from the entire political class.

There are those who say his centrist pose is cynical and dishonest; that he is really a leftist who will deliver Israel to its attackers, and a rabid secularist who will persecute the religious.

Who knows? But at this moment, Lapid’s attraction is that he does not fit the left/right stereotypes.

He took care to assemble his party list from a wide religious and political spectrum.

While stating that he thought negotiations with the Palestinians should reopen, he also declared that Jerusalem must remain united.

And his attitude towards the haredim, whose drafting into the army he has made a fundamental condition of his participation in government, seems more nuanced than his critics make out.

A remarkable video is doing the rounds of an address he gave last year to haredim at Kiryat Ono College near Tel Aviv.  The import of this speech was that, as a secularist, he had come to realise that the secular view of the orthodox was entirely wrong.

The secularists had thought they could denude Israeli national identity of orthodoxy, just as the orthodox thought they could denude it of secularists.

In fact, neither could get rid of the other. Both were an essential part of Israel’s future. More than that, he added, he had come to realise that there was a gaping hole at the heart of Israeli national identity where God ought to be.

In other words, this non-religious man was saying he now recognised that religion was essential to Israel’s identity and future. On that basis, he urged the haredim to acknowledge their responsibilities to the state which must include serving in its defence.

Maybe this was just opportunism. But he seemed to have genuinely understood something which is now so painfully obvious about Israel -- that from its foundational aspiration to create the ‘new Jew’, it has neglected its Jewish soul.

 Maybe Lapid will turn out to have feet of clay. But he has given voice to a deep Israeli yearning -- to stop the country’s internal bleeding -- which won’t go away.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

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