AP Interview: Israel's Lapid won't be 'fig leaf'

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World

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) -- Little known outside Israel, political newcomer Yair Lapid could soon become the moderate face to the world of an otherwise hard-line government after next week's parliamentary election.

Gamely predicting he will one day be prime minister, the cosmopolitan Lapid stands out in a political landscape crowded with ex-officers, lawyers and apparatchiks: perpetually dressed in black and coiffed in high style, he is a former TV news anchor, movie star, talk show host, novelist, newspaper columnist and amateur boxer.

Lapid said he would not be a "fig leaf" in an extremist government and will make firm demands in exchange for joining, including an end to the country's preferential treatment of ultra-Orthodox Jews and the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians.

"I think it is crucial that we take the path of being part of the Western, civilized world and the international community," Lapid told The Associated Press. "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."

The 49-year-old Lapid was one of Israel's best-known faces, writing a popular newspaper column -- -- in which he often discussed his wife and children and various personal matters -- and hosting a top-rated weekend news program when he abruptly declared a year ago that he was entering politics.

Despite being the son of a former Cabinet minister and living in an exclusive Tel Aviv neighborhood, he billed himself as an average Israeli, representing the interests of middle class people struggling to get by in a country torn by conflict and a high cost of living.

His "Yesh Atid" -- "There is a Future" -- party has grown into a formidable movement. Opinion polls predict the party will win perhaps a tenth of the seats in the 120-member parliament, which could make it the fourth-largest faction. But thanks to Israel's coalition system, Lapid could end up wielding influence far beyond his party's size.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's faction -- a union of his Likud with the even more nationalist Israel Beitenu -- is poised to emerge as the largest, with over 30 seats, according to the polls. Together with his traditional allies, hard-line nationalist and religious parties, he is expected to manage a majority at least 61 seats.

However, there is a strong sense among many Israelis that such a nationalist coalition would be disastrous for the country -- and that sense seems especially strong among the elites who are the natural milieu of both Lapid and Netanyahu.

This has led to much speculation that after a stormy four-year tenure characterized by deadlock in Mideast peace efforts and repeated clashes with the U.S. and other allies, Netanyahu will pursue a more centrist coalition.

That has left Lapid as a potential coalition partner, putting him in a strong position to demand a high-profile Cabinet post.

Despite opposing stands on most issues both Netanyahu and Lapid have encouraged the speculation by openly discussing the possibility. Often heard is the idea of Lapid as education minister.

Lapid repeatedly declares his deep regret about Netanyahu's strong poll showings but tends to follow that with what has become a stock phrase of sorts: "Let's be practical." He then explains how important it is to pull Netanyahu toward the center and free him from dependence on the most extreme nationalists.

A similar logic applied to the other main players on the center-left. But Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich recently declared she would not join Netanyahu under any circumstances, and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has founded a new party dedicated to promoting peace with the Palestinians, has a testy relationship with the prime minister.

Lapid could give Netanyahu an attractive new face to present to the world. He is a regular fixture on lists of Israel's sexiest men, dresses stylishly, claims to work out every day and speaks impeccable English.

During the interview in the book-lined basement study of his Tel Aviv home, he quoted Albert Einstein, Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and "The Godfather," and proudly displayed a pair of boxing gloves autographed by Muhammad Ali. Discussing his own crime novels, he professes his admiration for Raymond Chandler.

For Lapid, a place inside the government could boost his fledgling party and provide a springboard to his larger ambition: becoming prime minister one day.

But he vowed to drive a hard bargain, seeking guarantees that the new government would adopt his agenda. "I will not sit as a fig leaf for ultra-Orthodox extreme rightists," he said.

Accomplishing this goal will not be easy, since Lapid's targets include well-entrenched interest groups aligned with Netanyahu's party -- especially the country's ultra-Orthodox population.

Making up roughly 10 percent of the population, the ultra-Orthodox have long used their political influence to win key benefits. Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men receive exemptions from compulsory military service in order to pursue religious studies. These benefits continue well into adulthood, with a welfare system that allows the men to continue religious studies. These benefits have bred widespread resentment among the secular majority, which pays heavy taxes and generally serves in the military.

Lapid called religious study a "beautiful thing" but said the current system is unsustainable. "We can't support this anymore," he said. "They need to go out to work."

Lapid also criticized Netanyahu's failure to hold any substantive negotiations with the Palestinians.

The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem -- captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war -- as parts of a future state and have refused to negotiate with Netanyahu while he continues to build Jewish settlements in the two areas. Netanyahu rejects a full withdrawal from the West Bank and opposes any division of Jerusalem. The Palestinians seek the city's eastern sector, home to sensitive Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites, as their capital.

Israeli doves like Livni say a Palestinian state is needed not only to end decades of conflict, but also to save Israel. Continued control over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians, they say, could turn Israel into an apartheid-like state of a Jewish minority ruling over an Arab majority.

Netanyahu himself has acknowledged the need to establish a Palestinian state. But critics, including Lapid, accuse the Israeli leader of not doing enough to pursue this vision.

"I think if the prime minister really wanted to negotiate ... then he would have. I think this is part of what I'm going to do, make the government do this because it's so important in my mind," he said.

Lapid's vision of a Palestinian state is far more generous than Netanyahu's. He favors a near-total withdrawal from the West Bank, retaining major settlement "blocs" along the border. But on the emotional issue of Jerusalem, Lapid sides with Netanyahu, opposing any division of the holy city.

Lapid said his late father, the former Cabinet Minister Joseph Lapid, survived the Holocaust and resettled in the holy land because of Jerusalem, saying the city "is the reason we are here and if we have to fight for it we will fight for it."

He expressed confidence that the Palestinians would eventually come to terms with this and relinquish their claim to the city -- a position that would seem unrealistic given the Palestinians' own emotional attachment to Jerusalem, home to the revered Al-Aqsa Mosque.

While calling the Palestinian president a "partner" for peace, Lapid also accused Mahmoud Abbas of intransigence and rejecting past Israeli peace offers. The Palestinians reject this narrative, saying Israeli peace offers have not been as generous as billed.

They will also be disappointed by the absence of urgency emanating from Lapid.

"I think that working out of panic is always wrong. We don't need to be hysterical about it," he said.

Lapid insisted his joining the government is not a sure thing, saying his "values are not for sale.

That said, one must be practical.

"Politics -- you know what, life -- is the art of compromise," he said. "I'm married -- I should know."

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