REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Yair Lapid, a popular Israeli news anchor and television personality, is quitting journalism and heading for politics, local media reported Sunday.
Lapid's move put an end to yearlong speculation that he was eyeing a run for parliament while starting new debate about his move's consequences for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.
The anchorman, who has hosted Channel 2's prime-time news magazaine "Friday Studio" for several years, informed the station's executives he would be leaving, according to numerous online Israel news reports.
In recent months, a number of polls predicted electoral success for a new party headed by Lapid. Although not formally declared, his positions would most likely be left-leaning and liberal. Many observers believe his eventual party would resemble that led by his late father, Tommy Lapid, also a former journalist.
Tommy Lapid was an economic conservative but staunchly liberal on personal liberties and a fierce fighter of religious restrictions on civil society. His Shinui Party, which means "change" in Hebrew, more than doubled its number of seats in parliament to 15 during the 2003 elections. That helped force its nemesis, the ultraorthodox Shas Party, out of the government.
The latest poll predicted Yair Lapid's unborn party could win 15 or even 20 seats in the 120-seat parliament and become a force to be reckoned with, possibly even becoming Israel's second-largest party and forming a coalition that could rival Netanyahu's.
Israel's next elections are scheduled for November 2013, but voting is commonly moved up. So far, Netanyahu's right-wing coalition has appeared solid and its opposition somewhat quiet and prone to infighting.
Recently, however, the opposition has stirred to life in response to increasingly conservative legislation. In addition, new Labor Party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovitch, another former high-profile media figure, has challenged Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni's leadership of the opposition.
Though Lapid still does not have a party, others are already feeling the heat. Kadima and Labor might have to compete for opposition votes not only with each other but with a new party. Religious politicians, meanwhile, fear a fierce anti-religious agenda.
"The Left's revenge will come," a column Lapid penned in November, hints at his plans for the right-wing nationalists dominating Netanyahu's coalition and its legislative efforts. Ultimately, he indicates, their support might cost Netanyahu his ruling coalition.
Opposition lawmaker Ronit Tirosh recently proposed a bill that would require a six-month cooling-off period for journalists seeking election for public office. Dubbed the Lapid Bill, it was believed to be tailored to keep the anchor away from politics. Tirosh rejected the charge, and in a radio interview Sunday said the bill championed a principle rather than targeted a particular person.
Carmel Shama-Hacohen of Likud, a co-sponsor of the bill, welcomed Lapid's resignation and said it is further proof of the bill's relevance. For months, Israelis were given prime-time news "by a politician disguised as a journalist" advancing a political agenda, he said.
Other lawmakers, including former journalists Daniel Ben-Simon and Nitzan Horowitz, welcomed Lapid's decision and called on the sponsors to withdraw the bill. For now it remains on the agenda for a preliminary vote on Wednesday.
Photo: Israeli journalist Yair Lapid in 2010. Credit: Miriam Alster / Flash90