Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid
Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid at a 2013 news conference - will one usurp the other?Reuters

The first time I saw Yair Lapid speak live, he was addressing a diplomatic conference in Herzliya, a turgid affair frequented by grey, brandy-supping foreign policy types. His opening line was a joke about his divorce. The line fell flat.

Yet by the end of the speech, he was basking in the glow of a standing ovation. I was reminded of Tony Blair at his peak addressing a room full of trade unionists; palpable distrust on both sides, but a recognition that although we don't like each other, we need each other.

The Israeli political elite are torn in much the same way. They instinctively mistrust Lapid. A former journalist, actor, novelist, television presenter and household celebrity, his political party, Yesh Atid, emerged from nowhere to secure the second largest majority in the Knesset.

Not every politician appreciated the irony of a chat show host who made a career of mocking politicians becoming the most popular politician in Israel overnight.

But Yesh Atid represented something different. Lapid, a native Tel Avivian, sought to harness the energy of the social protests of 2012 that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets of Israel's cities.

He promised a social revolution of fair income distribution and lower food prices. He sought peace with the Palestinians but proclaimed a zero tolerance approach to terrorism, echoing Rabin's clarion call of "seeking peace without the threat of terrorism, and fighting terrorists without the hope of peace." He stood in colourful contrast to Netanyahu: a charismatic, intelligent realist, without Bibi's burden of history.

Yet the optimism quickly ebbed. The turning point was the aftermath of 2012's general election. After spending much of his campaign lamenting the traditional manner Israeli governments are formed – through backroom deals and opaque negotiations – Lapid was too quick to engage in the very same horse-trading.

He pursued a very public flirtation with the far right leader Naftali Bennett, and in the process lost the support of many of the moderate, secular Israelis that formed his core base. And Netanyahu, the wily old political operator, recognised Lapid's blind ambition and offered him the Finance Ministry. It was a wise move.

Netanyahu calculated that the best way to stunt the future threat to his premiership was to directly tie Lapid's fortunes to the flagging Israeli economy. Lapid recognised the risks, but in the words of one prominent British politician with a close interest in Israel, "Yair's ego got the better of him again. He couldn't resist the challenge."

And so it has proved. Lapid's personal approval ratings, once riding high near 80%, have dropped to less than 30%. He is no longer the great hope of moderate, centrist Israelis who seek an alternative to the increasingly right-wing Likud, and the increasingly irrelevant Labor Party. But is he being written off too soon?

Although problems remain within the Israeli economy, Lapid has so far managed to steer steadily through troubled times. He has won a major, ongoing battle with Likud and the IDF over the defence budget, making deep cuts and arguing that more must be done with less.

Lapid holds no ideological attachment to Israel's bloated public sector, like many of his Knesset colleagues. He values mobility, and envisions government departments being fleet of foot and as innovative as the famous Israeli start-up sector. He has held firm against the Bank of Israel's demands to raise taxes, and slowly, painfully even, he is earning the respect of Israel's middle classes who are tired of subsidising the state.

But foreign policy is becoming the arena in which Lapid is again finding his voice. Whether by luck or calculation, Lapid's support for John Kerry's peace initiative remained muted in the public eye throughout the soap opera of negotiations. Netanyahu, Peres, and Livni were all scarred by the collective failure.

Most Israelis were resentful of Naftali Bennett's grandstanding on behalf of the right and the handwringing of Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. As the world rebuked Israel's land-grab this week, it was Lapid that stood in front of the international media and condemned it.

Not because he is an ideologue, or believes deep in his heart that settlements are wrong or illegal. But because his actions so far in his political career point to a man both pragmatic and opportunistic.

In a country scarred by the actions of ideologues and true believers, perhaps an alternative path to peace is one forged by pragmatism and opportunism. Perhaps Lapid's time will come.

Ross Cypher-Burley is a former spokesman for the British ambassador to Israel, and now works for strategic communications firm Portland. You can follow him on Twitter here.