Popular Israeli anchorman quits TV, joins politics

January 8, 2012 - 12:21 PM
Mideast Israel Politics

In this photo dated Dec. 22, 2010, Israeli journalist, author and TV-anchor Yair Lapid attends a conference in Tel Aviv. Lapid, one of Israel's most popular television personalities, is quitting the news business to get into politics, Israeli Channel 2 TV announced Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Miriam Alster/Flash90)

JERUSALEM (AP) — One of Israel's most popular television personalities quit the news business Sunday to start his own political party, a move that could shake up the Israeli political system by energizing opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yair Lapid is a best-selling author and columnist who has anchored Channel 2's top-rated weekend news edition for the past four years. Polls show the 48-year-old Lapid would do well, particularly with secular voters.

A poll conducted late last week by Israel Radio said a Lapid-led party could win as many as 15 seats in the 120-seat parliament if elections were held now. That could make it the second-largest party after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud.

Elections in Israel are set for late 2013, but in Israel's parliamentary system, governments rarely serve their full terms, and analysts believe elections could take place as early as this year.

Lapid's image as a secularist likely boosted his poll results, as Israel is in the throes of controversy over efforts by ultra-Orthodox Jews to impose their strict lifestyles on less observant Israeli Jews in some places.

Netanyahu's coalition government is based on close cooperation with ultra-Orthodox parties.

Critics have accused Lapid of using his TV anchor desk as a pulpit to promote an agenda. His show recently broke the story of an 8-year-old schoolgirl who was spat on and cursed by ultra-Orthodox extremists. The story sparked an angry outcry against religious extremists.

Lapid's move from journalism to politics mirrors that of his late father, Joseph Lapid, a newspaper columnist and TV personality who started his own party and went on to become justice minister. Joseph Lapid's party drew support mostly for its biting criticism of Israel's ultra-Orthodox religious establishment.

Israel has a long history of niche or centrist parties that have burst onto the political scene with great fanfare, only to fizzle. But Lapid, one of Israel's most recognizable faces, brings a star appeal that few before him have had. The announcement that he was entering politics led all of Israel's Sunday evening TV newscasts.

Lapid's resignation was announced by Channel 2. Lapid himself did not immediately comment.

Little is known about Lapid's political views. But in his columns and television commentaries, he portrays himself as a reasonable and pragmatic common man, patriotic yet critical of the government and sympathetic to social issues. Such views could make him attractive him to centrist Israelis.

Political analyst Hanan Crystal said Lapid alone would not unseat Netanyahu and instead would take away votes from the centrist Kadima and Labor parties, which sit in the opposition.

"He won't break up the blocs, but he could break up some parties," Crystal said. "The big question is who will join him. If he bring serious people aboard, he could be a major factor."

The mere mention of his candidacy has moved lawmakers to begin drafting a bill requiring journalists to go through a six-month "cooling off" period before they enter politics. The bill is known informally as "the Lapid law."

Lapid was born in Tel Aviv and started his journalism career in uniform as a military correspondent for the Israeli army's weekly magazine. He later became a popular columnist for daily newspapers. Lapid has also hosted a cable TV talk show, written screenplays, appeared in TV ads for a bank and written seven books.