Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid smiles ahead of the vote on a bill to dissolve parliament, at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Thursday, June 30, 2022. Lapid will serve as caretaker prime minister until elections this fall. It would be Israel's fifth election in under four years. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Yair Lapid takes over as Israel's caretaker prime minister
02:26 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.

Jerusalem CNN  — 

Yair Lapid is used to being in the spotlight.

The son of a prominent family, Lapid has dabbled in acting, screenwriting, music and even amateur boxing, before becoming best known to the Israeli public as a journalist-turned-politician.

Now Lapid will be entering his biggest spotlight yet – as Israel’s caretaker prime minister.

Lapid officially took over as caretaker prime minister on Friday after the country’s parliament, the Knesset, passed a bill to dissolve itself a day earlier.

He’s now preparing for elections, trying to keep former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from climbing back to power.

A media celebrity

Despite his brief acting foray, Lapid became a mainstay in Israelis’ living rooms through the news. After briefly working as a print journalist, he made his way on to television in the mid-1990s, hosting one of the biggest talk shows of the era.

But in 2012 Lapid changed course following in the footsteps of his journalist-turned politician father. He created a new political party, dubbed “Yesh Atid” (There is a Future) and positioned himself as the centrist voice of the middle-class Israeli, focusing on domestic issues. He promised to tackle housing costs, end exemptions from the military draft for the Ultra-Orthodox, and to legalize same-sex marriage.

“What unites all of (our supporters) is that they said yes for hope and yes for mutual responsibility and yes to the fact that the truth is not being held in any side,” Lapid said at the time.

A centrist for all

In his first campaign, Lapid tried to portray his party as one all Israelis could be part of, even unveiling his diplomatic platform from a settlement in the occupied West Bank. He supports an independent Palestinian state, but says East Jerusalem shouldn’t be its capital. He opposes new settlement construction but says large existing settlement blocs should always be a part of Israel.

“Yair Lapid is the quintessential product of Tel Aviv, of Israel’s main secular city, its main business and culture center, center of nightlife and so on,” Anshel Pfeffer, a correspondent for Haaretz and The Economist, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

“Many Israelis, including Israelis who were close to his centrist perhaps leaning leftward politics and views, including many of my colleagues in Israeli media, didn’t take him seriously. They thought he’s a performer, he’s a presenter, there’s no real substance there, this will be a passing phase.”

But Lapid’s party shocked the Israeli political establishment by winning 19 seats in the 2013 elections, second only to Netanyahu’s Likud party. Lapid was dubbed Israel’s new political star, and Time Magazine named him as one of 2013’s “100 Most Influential People.”

He joined then-Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government as finance minister but was fired within less than two years and became one of the opposition’s top voices.

The most diverse coalition

In 2021 after four inconclusive elections in two years, it was Lapid who was the architect of the coalition that would ultimately oust Netanyahu and end his run as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

Pulling together parties from across the political spectrum, from the far left to those on the right, and even including the first Arab party in to sit in a governing coalition – the new government held a one-seat majority.

But it came at a cost to Lapid’s own political ambitions. As part of the deal to bring the right-winger Naftali Bennett on board as prime minister, Lapid would only take over after two years.

“Lapid brought together this very unwieldy, almost unimaginable, unprecedented coalition of eight parties (and) managed to get them all to vote for Naftali Bennett as prime minister, managed to maintain them for an entire year, and above all for many Israelis he is now the only man in the last 12 years to beat Netanyahu – that by itself is a big achievement,” Pfeffer said.

Lapid was appointed foreign minister, where he traversed the globe meeting with world leaders and, notably, Israel’s new Arab-state allies. It was Lapid who hosted the historic Negev summit, where the top diplomatic representatives from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt and the United States met in southern Israel for the first time in March 2022.

But ultimately it was the coalition’s ideological diversity that was also the source of its fragility. It lost its parliamentary majority when two members of Bennett’s own right-wing party defected. And when some left-leaning members refused to support a recurring bill that among other things, gives Israeli settlers in the West Bank the same civil rights as citizens in Israel, the coalition reached a political impasse.

In a shock move, Lapid and Bennett announced last week they would dissolve their own government and trigger new elections, making Lapid interim prime minister.

Standing together in a show of solidarity, Lapid told Bennett “I love you,” a moment of outward bromance that surprised many in the Israeli media.

Lapid will be the first non-right-wing prime minister of Israel in more than a decade. He now has four months to convince the public he should keep the job. Elections will be held on November 1.

The digest

Unilever sells Ben & Jerry’s Israel business after controversy

Unilever has sold its Ben & Jerry’s business in Israel for an undisclosed amount to American Quality Products (AQP), which distributes Ben & Jerry’s in the country, following the controversy related to its activities in Israel and the West Bank. Critics took the company to task for doing business in Israel – especially in West Bank settlements, considered illegal under international law – arguing it doesn’t align with Ben & Jerry’s liberal image. Ben & Jerry’s will now be sold under its Hebrew and Arabic names throughout Israel and the West Bank

  • Background: Unilever said Wednesday that it “has used the opportunity of the past year to listen to perspectives on this complex and sensitive matter and believes this is the best outcome for Ben & Jerry’s in Israel.” The ice cream company, however, tweeted that it doesn’t agree with Unilever’s announcement. “We continue to believe it is inconsistent with Ben & Jerry’s values for our ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” it tweeted, adding it will no longer profit from Ben & Jerry’s in Israel.
  • Why it matters: The sale ends a long saga that had angered ice cream fans on every side of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but it also highlights the challenges facing consumer brands doing business in the region.

Egyptian court sentences to death man accused of killing a 21-year-old student

A man accused of fatally stabbing a woman last week after she rejected his advances was sentenced to death by a state court in Egypt, according to state-run Al Ahram on Tuesday.

  • Background: The verdict, issued after two court sessions, will be deferred to Egypt’s top Islamic authority, the Grand Mufti – a formality in death penalty cases in the country, Al-Ahram said. The final verdict will be announced on July 6. The sentence can still be appealed in Egypt’s court of cassation, as per Egyptian law.
  • Why it matters: The killing of the woman, Naira Ashraf, in broad daylight was caught on film and left the Arab world in shock as activists called for justice and more protection for women.

Erdogan says Sweden has promised to extradite 73 people as part of NATO deal

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sweden promised to extradite 73 people to Turkey as a result of the memorandum that was signed at the NATO summit in Madrid between Sweden, Finland and Turkey. In signing the agreement, Turkey has agreed to support Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership bids, removing the last major hurdle to the two countries joining the alliance. “If the promise is not kept, we will do what is necessary in the agreement,” Erdogan said at a news conference on Thursday, adding that Turkey would not ratify the agreement.

  • Background: Turkey previously said it would veto Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership bids claiming they harbor members of Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which Turkey, the EU and the US recognize as a terror organization. The 10-article memorandum says Sweden and Finland will address Turkey’s pending extradition requests of terror suspects in accordance with the European Convention on Extradition.
  • Why it matters: Sweden and Finland formally ending decades of neutrality and joining NATO would be a historic breakthrough for the alliance, and deal a blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Around the region

A view of Saint Hilarion, another archaeological site in the Gaza Strip, on June 8. The site of Saint Hilarion is also being supported by French NGO Premiere Urgence Internationale

An ancient tomb dating as far back as 2,400 years to the Roman era has been unearthed by archeologists in the Gaza Strip, showcasing the coastal enclave’s rich history.

Situated on the coast of northern Gaza, the tomb is a momentous find for the Palestinians living in the territory.

The tomb is part of a larger Roman cemetery that was discovered by accident earlier this year, said Jehad Abu Hassan, the Gaza Strip field coordinator for Premiere Urgence Internationale, a French NGO that is involved in helping to preserve Gaza’s heritage. “This is the first time a Roman cemetery has been found in Gaza.” The NGO has also supported work at another archeological site in central Gaza called Saint Hilarion.

It’s not uncommon for relics to be excavated in this region due to its historical geographic significance, which meant various civilizations moved through the area over the centuries.

The tomb is part of an ongoing archeological dig that has been in progress for months, where Abu Hassan says 40 graves have been found.

“It’s great that we protect and keep this rich heritage of Gaza for future generations,” he told CNN. “When we talk to children about their heritage they are very happy to see that people were coming from everywhere [to Gaza].”

The tombs stand out due to the social standing of those people they belonged to, according to a Palestinian official in Gaza.

“Some of the graves were decorated with elegant decorations,” said Mohammed Khalla, undersecretary for Gaza’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, speaking to Quds Press news agency. “Which indicates they belonged to figures who had a social and administrative status in Roman society at the time.”

The ministry said it is in the process of securing the necessary funding to preserve the site, according to Quds Press.

Interest in protecting the tomb arises from its location near the Anthedon (Blakhiyah) harbor, Gaza’s first port and a landmark that played a crucial role in connecting the territory to Europe thousands of years ago.

By Ghazi Nasser

Photo of the day

Iraqi Kurdish musicians perform at a concert alongside Iran's Sarmast musical group at the Erbil citadel in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, on June 30.