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Sorry Yair Lapid, charm and good looks alone won't get you very far in Israeli politics

Less than two months after taking office and after passing a controversial budget, the the career prospects of this telegenic finance minister are looking at lot less rosy
  • @AlistairDawber

If a week is long time in politics, to Yair Lapid, Israel’s telegenic new finance minister, the last six months must have felt like several lifetimes. This time last year, Mr Lapid was a popular, and wealthy, TV host. In January, his new political party, Yesh Atid, won the second highest number of seats in Israel’s general election. After weeks of coalition negotiations, Mr Lapid – who has publicly stated his intention to be Israel’s next prime minister – was appointed finance minister, in wily old Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Arguably, the move was a masterstroke by Mr Netanyahu. A former colleague of Mr Lapid’s at Israel’s popular Channel 2 News described to The Independent recently how unsuited the former anchor was to the role. But, having campaigned on what he described as “middle class” issues or, in other words, the fiscal burden on well-to-do Israelis, the finance brief seemed appropriate.

Less than two months after taking office and after passing a budget that included tax hikes and spending cuts aimed at taming Israel’s deficit, Mr Lapid must have realised that good looks, charm and easy rhetoric are not enough in the rough and tumble of politics.

Thousands have since taken to  the streets in Israel’s biggest city, secular Tel Aviv, which provided the rump of his support in January, to demand that the measures in the finance bill be reversed. Chanting “where has the  money gone?”, demonstrators mocked Mr Lapid’s own campaign slogan. “Some people stupidly believed Yair Lapid; that he was going to change things, but as  soon as he got into office he  became like all the other politicians,” said one elderly demonstrator.

Mr Lapid’s response has been in part to fall back on the second pillar of his campaign strategy; bashing orthodox Jews who largely don’t work and whose children are exempt for otherwise compulsory military service. It’s a popular strategy among the tax-paying middle classes, but the demonstrations in Tel Aviv have been mirrored in Jerusalem, with orthodox communities taking to the streets to demand that Mr Lapid stops attacking their way of life.

And then there was Riki Cohen. Just after taking office, Mr Lapid took to Facebook to say how he was helping the average “Riki Cohen”, an imaginary 37-year-old mother of three who together with her husband owned their own home and went abroad on holiday every two years. Mr and Mrs Cohen were said to get by on 20,000 Israeli shekels a month, which is well above the average wage: Mr Lapid’s attempt to connect with people was an immediate disaster.

In other words, so far, Mr Lapid has let down his own electorate, created disharmony and is out of touch with difficulties faced by ordinary people. But what of the prime minister?

Benjamin Netanyahu, who was strong-armed by Mr Lapid during the coalition negotiations to exclude many of the prime minister’s natural allies in the government, has been speaking about the existential threat posed to Israel by Iran’s supposed nuclear ambitions. He has been seen countless times with US Secretary of State, John Kerry, talking about the possibility of peace, or otherwise, with the Palestinians.

Mr Netanyahu has been acting as a statesman, and while he would almost certainly be considered too right wing for the majority of the British electorate, it is easy to how he has out-smarted Mr Lapid.

Many people before the election said that, much as they disliked Mr Netanyahu, they wanted him back as prime minister. He is the survivor of Israeli politics, and at this rate, he’ll survive Mr Lapid’s ambitions, too.

A strange route to football glory

It may be that few of the young footballers turning up in Israel this week for the start of the European under 21 championships have ever opened an atlas. But the more astute among them will realise, possibly from the heat alone, that despite the Uefa banners hanging everywhere, the fact remains: they are not in Europe.

Israel’s unpopularity in its own backyard is well documented, but that has led to its own interesting history in world football. Established, along with the state, in 1948, the Israeli football association automatically became a member of the Asian federation, but neighbouring Arab states refused to play them. The isolation led to the odd situation in the late 1950s of Israel winning a World Cup qualifying stage without ever kicking a ball.

The situation became ridiculous and, by the 1970s, qualifiers were played in the Oceania section, which meant regular away trips to Australia and New Zealand. By the early 1980s, Europe had invited the Jewish state to compete more locally and, a decade later, club sides from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa were playing in the Champions League.

Israel is now hosting its biggest ever international sporting event, but one wonders whether the players taking part have any idea of how they got there.