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New kind of Israeli politician? Yair Lapid doesn't talk about Iran, Palestinians

Yair Lapid, a hunky former TV news columnist, has fashioned himself as the everyman of a new generation of Israelis. But he faces tough competition from incumbent Netanyahu.

By Correspondent / May 3, 2012

Israeli Yair Lapid, popular former TV anchorman, head of the new centrist party being formed named Yesh Atid, speaks in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, May 1.

Ariel Schalit/AP

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Tel Aviv

Israelis are accustomed to retired military generals parachuting into politics and shaking things up. But now, as the country gears up for new elections in four months, the field has been scrambled by a new kind of would-be hero: a hunky former TV news columnist named Yair Lapid.

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Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party holds a seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls, Mr. Lapid relies on a carefully cultivated image as the everyman of a new generation of Israelis. He doesn't talk much about Iran, or the conflict with Palestinians, but instead focuses on improving Israeli society. He has launched a new party called "There's a future" and challenges his followers to dream and not listen to cynics.

“He reminds us of what Israel could have been or should be. For the Israelis masses, he is willing to make concessions for peace, but still has a backbone. He is willing to fight for secular Jews, but doesn’t forget we have a Jewish people,” says Israel Waismel-Manor, a political science professor at the University of Haifa. “He is a man’s man: he boxes, and goes to the gym; but in some respects he’s a feminist – he adores his wife and supports women’s rights.”

At his inaugural campaign rally this week, Lapid gave an address that mixed optimism reminiscent of President Obama’s 2008 campaign with the self-confident stage presence of Mr. Netanyahu. Echoing the spirit of last summer's mass protests, Lapid’s address focused on the hot-button issue of ultra-Orthodox pulling their weight in Israeli society while avoiding foreign policy issues entirely.

Polished and charismatic, he is bidding to become the new standard-bearer of the Israeli center by tapping into middle-class frustration that fueled last year’s protests over socioeconomic inequality. He is seeking to fill the vacuum after the fall of Tzipi Livni, the former prime ministerial candidate who was unseated as leader of the centrist Kadima party – in part because of her silence over the protests.

"I embrace every person that gets up and goes out of their house to fight for the principles they believe in," said Lapid in his stump speech, held at Tel Aviv University and attended by activists from his new party. "However, the solution is not outside the political system but inside the political system."

But while Lapid's entrance into the race gives some hope, it could also further fracture the center-left opposition to Mr. Netanyahu and prevent it from mounting a credible challenge.

Critics: He represents the people of the cafés

According to recent polls, Lapid’s party could get 12 of the 120 parliamentary seats. Its support comes largely from Israelis disillusioned with Ms. Livni and Kadima, which won the largest parliamentary bloc in the 2009 election but is poised to lose more than half their seats.

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