During January’s election campaign, fought largely on the financial issues facing Israel’s squeezed middle class, Yair Lapid’s signature slogan was an angry: “Where’s the money?”

Four months later, the former newspaper columnist and chat-show host, now finance minister and head of the second-largest party in Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, holds most of the answers.

The 49-year-old novice politician is putting finishing touches on a draft budget, to be presented to the Knesset later this month and pencilled in for approval by the end of July.

In it, Mr Lapid – a man with a curriculum vitae that more closely resembles Oprah Winfrey’s than treasury secretary Jack Lew’s – will face a strong test of his political skills and personal popularity as he seeks to close a fiscal gap of about $5bn by the end of next year. On Thursday Standard & Poor’s downgraded Israel’s local currency credit rating from AA- to A+ after Mr Lapid floated a plan to raise the 2013 deficit target from 3 per cent to a nearly unprecedented 4.9 per cent of gross domestic product. The controversial deficit plan risks a showdown with Stanley Fischer, Israel’s respected central bank governor.

The stakes are high for an ambitious man who is riding – and himself largely created – a new, populist, emotional kind of politics in a country where the public increasingly sense they hold more power than politicians.

Even before presenting the budget, he is off to a riotous start. Israelis are seeing an angrier, more confrontational figure than the suave and charming TV interviewer and author of folksy newspaper columns that are taped on many a refrigerator in Middle Israel.

Mr Lapid has ignited a culture war with Israel’s ultra-Orthodox or Haredi community, his political bête noire, declaring “war” against a community many secular Israelis resent because of their reliance on state handouts.

“I don’t take orders from you,” he told Haredi lawmakers after facing heckling in the Knesset during a recent speech. Afterwards, he said he would make his future speeches elsewhere, earning a rare reprimand from the Knesset’s speaker.

Mr Lapid has also rankled Israel’s press corps and some civil servants in his own ministry by refusing interviews and posting details of internal meetings on Facebook. In a series of postings he conjured up Riki Cohen, an imaginary Israeli woman struggling to pay bills and educate her children on a household income of 20,000 shekels ($5,625) a month. Critics said middle class Israelis would be lucky to earn that much.

“Addressing the population through Facebook is a bit reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-Four, where you talk to the public but they can’t talk back,” says Shlomo Avineri, professor of politics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Mr Lapid has made no secret that he sees himself as a potential Israeli leader. “To be the next prime minister of Israel – this is the ultimate goal,” says Ben Caspit, a journalist and former colleague of Mr Lapid. “All the other stuff is logistics and budgets.”

During coalition talks, Mr Lapid pitched unsuccessfully for the foreign ministry job, a position many Israelis say would have suited him better.

Some analysts surmised that Mr Netanyahu, a wily political strategist and former finance minister himself, was handing the upstart politician a poisoned chalice at a time when economic growth is slowing and Israel needs to cut spending.

Catty commentators remarked that Mr Lapid’s only financial experience consisted of having appeared in advertisements for Israel’s Bank Hapoalim. Video footage from one of Mr Lapid’s own talk shows surfaced showing him interviewing Mr Netanyahu when he was heading the treasury, and declaring: “I don’t understand anything about economics”.

In challenging the lavish state privileges enjoyed by the Haredim, many of whom form large families and do not work, Mr Lapid is plucking at low-hanging fiscal fruit. He is also championing an issue popular with his middle-class constituency. However, Mr Lapid and his party have angered some Israelis by the forthright, even inflammatory language they use in addressing the ultra-Orthodox.

A few days after Mr Lapid was heckled by the Haredim, his deputy Mickey Levy described the ultra-Orthodox as “parasites” – a loaded word in a country with memories of the word’s use against Jews in Nazi Germany.

“That’s a strong word, specially for a Jew, and straight away, he saw an escalation,” says Lior Averbach, media correspondent for Globes, the financial publication. Mr Levy later apologised, but did not retract his assertion that the community must stop relying on state largesse.

The chattering classes of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are now divided as to whether the finance job will mark Mr Lapid’s springboard to top political office, or his political epitaph. “I think he’s going to crash – you cannot be a popular finance minister,” says one former finance ministry official.

Mr Caspit disagrees. “Netanyahu is in a classic Catch-22 situation: he can’t afford for Lapid to succeed, and he can’t afford for Lapid to fail,” he says. “If Lapid fails, two or three years from now it will be much worse, and Lapid will say: ‘The prime minister did not give me a chance’.”

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