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Israel's surprisingly close parliamentary elections yesterday have brought political power to a man accustomed to the bright lights of television, former journalist and media personality Yair Lapid. His Yesh Atid party, which means There is a Future, got 19 seats in the parliament, making it the second-largest voting bloc.
From Jerusalem, NPR's Larry Abramson has this profile of the new force in Israeli politics.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Watching a video of Yair Lapid talking to English-speaking voters in Tel Aviv last month, you can almost feel the audience fall under his spell. Prowling the stage in a black T-shirt and sport coat, the 49-year-old former TV anchor warns this mostly young crowd that Israel's high cost of living is taking away their future.
YAIR LAPID: I have some bad news. You will never have an apartment.
ABRAMSON: Because they will never be able to afford a mortgage in Israel's out-of-control real estate market. The crowd seems to understand instantly that this is what they should be worried about. He moves on to another threat, the rapid growth in the number of Orthodox Jews who don't serve in the army and often rely on government support so they can study the Torah.
LAPID: And this will be the end of Israel. No country on Earth can survive if 50 percent or more of its population are not participating, neither in defense or in the economy.
ABRAMSON: Lapid is adept at delivering dire messages like this with a cool demeanor that says, I can fix it. Yair Lapid comes from media and political royalty. His father, Tommy Lapid, survived the Holocaust, moved to Israel and became a journalist, then turned the Shinui party into a major force in parliament in 2003. But Shinui quickly disappeared. Longtime friend and author Amnon Dankner says Yair Lapid felt a responsibility to pick up the mantle.
AMNON DANKNER: And enter political life and try to do his best to - well, to save the country.
ABRAMSON: Dankner says Yair Lapid also decided to learn from his father's mistakes. Tommy Lapid was known for being passionate and not so diplomatic in his efforts to reduce the power of Orthodox Judaism in this country.
DANKNER: Yair is not given to these moods of hatred. It's not to his taste.
ABRAMSON: Dankner says he believes Yair Lapid's cooler approach won the trust of voters concerned about voting for a newly minted candidate with no voting record. He's billed himself as an outsider ready to clean house. Just days ago, Lapid was expected to make a weaker showing and was overshadowed by another new face, right-wing upstart Naftali Bennett.
But polling stops in Israel four days before the election. In that short space of time, voters may have jumped to Lapid out of concern that a right-wing victory was coming, says Professor Gideon Rahat of the Israel Democracy Institute.
DR. GIDEON RAHAT: They felt like Bennett was going to be strong, Netanyahu was going to have the same old coalition with the religious forces strong within and outside his party, and people maybe wanted to balance it with Lapid.
ABRAMSON: Even before final returns were in, Prime Minister Netanyahu gave Lapid a call. His participation may be indispensable to building a stable coalition now that Israel's parliament appears evenly divided between right- and left-wing blocks.
Up till now, Lapid has tiptoed away from association with either end of the political spectrum, as in this recent online interview with The Jerusalem Post.
LAPID: We are not a center-left party. We are a center-center party. We are the party of the Israeli middleclass.
ABRAMSON: Tonight, Lapid announced he would not joint left-wing parties seeking to build an anti-Netanyahu bloc. So this outsider may be on his way to a view from the inside. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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