Former Israeli journalist, justice minister Yosef Lapid dies

Former Israeli justice minister Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, a journalist and media personality who championed the views of his secular countrymen against the ultra-Orthodox establishment, has died at age 76, dpa reported.

He had been hospitalized in serious condition over the weekend, after complaining of feeling ill.

A mainstream journalist for over 40 years, former head of the Israel Broadcasting Authority for five of them, and a regular panelist on a top-rated television chat show, Lapid entered politics in 1999, when he was asked to head the secular Shinui party. Under his leadership, the party won six mandates in the 120-seat Knesset that year.

In 2003 however, playing on the disenchantment of a large segment of the public with the political establishment, the party won 15 seats and entered then-premier Ariel Sharon's coalition, with Lapid becoming minister of justice.

But Lapid and his party left the government in December 2004 and in the 2006 elections Shinui, plagued by internal fighting and with Lapid no longer at the helm, crashed spectacularly, failing to win any Knesset seats.

Despite his political career, Lapid was best known to the public as the white-haired, pugnacious and acerbic television personality who was never at a loss for words, most of them delivered in a slow, caustic drawl.

His antagonism towards the ultra-Orthodox was so pronounced that that some rabbis publicly invoked curses on his head.

Lapid was born Tomislav Lampel in the city of Novi Sad on the border of Hungary and Yugoslavia, on December 27, 1931, and survived the Holocaust, although his father was killed by the Nazis.

At one point Lapid and his mother were placed with a group of Jews in Budapest whom the Nazis planned on killing along the banks of the river Danube, but he was saved at the last minute when his mother hid him and herself inside a toilet.

"As I've said, there I became a Zionist," he told the Haaretz daily in a 1995 interview, "because there I understood that there is not enough space in the whole world for a 13-year-old Jewish boy, so there must be one place for us. In Israel."

Lapid and his mother immigrated to Israel in 1948. He studied law and began working as a journalist for an Israeli-Hungarian daily, before finding work at the Ma'ariv newspaper, becoming one of the daily's leading columnists.

After serving as the head of the Israel Broadcasting Authority from 1979 to 1984, he returned to Ma'ariv, and also found new fame as a guest on a political talk show, in which discussions were usually so charged that participants were rarely able to complete a sentence without being interrupted.

After retiring from political life, Lapid became chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial council.

He is survived by his wife Shulamit, an author, his son, Yair, also a television personality and columnist, and his daughter Meirav. Another daughter, Michal, died in a road accident in 1984.

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