It took many by surprise, but the centrist party Yesh Atid secured a record 19 seats in Israel's general election on Monday, positioning its rookie leader Yair Lapid as the country's new political kingmaker.
According to near-complete results, Prime Minister Netanyahu's Likud party and other right-wing allied parties won 60 seats -- the same number as the rival bloc of centrist, secular, and Arab parties, the Associated Press reports. This leaves Yesh Atid ("There Is A Future") the possibility of either joining Likud in a coalition, or choosing the opposition benches.
Forty-nine-year old Lapid is one of Israel's most well-known public figures. A television anchor, best-selling author, weekly columnist, boxing lover, and occasional songwriter, Lapid made the leap from journalism into politics in January 2012. He is the son of journalist-turned-politician Joseph Lapid, who served as minister of justice and headed the centrist Shinui party. Lapid's move to politics was less than a surprise; the Israeli parliament even voted on a bill called the "Lapid law" that would order a suspension time for journalists who decide to turn to politics.
As Haaretz points out, Lapid's candidacy was often ridiculed. "He smokes cigars, he boxes and he mousses his curly hair to the extent it has become his trademark. He is a notorious wannabe, often trying to pose as cool or tough, even though he is not in junior high anymore. In fact, he doesn’t even have a high-school diploma and often gets his facts wrong," the newspaper cynically explains.
Yet his win signifies an appeal to broad parts of the Israeli population. "Yair’s Israeli eclecticism ... reflects his ability -- alone among today's leaders -- to define the Israeli center," Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in an essay for Tablet Magazine entitled Why I Voted for Yair Lapid. "I voted for Yair because, as a centrist Israeli, I have no other political home," he added.
Lapid ran largely on a domestic platform, focusing on the problems of the country's middle class, the need for education reform, and the undue influence of religion in politics, CNN notes.
"I think it is crucial that we take the path of being part of the Western, civilized world and the international community," Lapid told AP. "I don't want a country that is defined by religion. I don't want a country that is defined by the separation of groups and sectors."
Lapid also stressed the importance of renewed peace efforts with the Palestinians, taking a very different course than Netanyahu and his right-wing allies. According to AP, he supports a near-total withdrawal from the West Bank, but opposes the division of Jerusalem.
In a previous interview with AP during the run-up to the election, Lapid said that he would refuse to be a "fig leaf" in an extremist government, touting the resumption of peace negotiations with the Palestinians and an end to the country's preferential treatment of ultra-Orthodox Jews as preconditions for coalition talks.