One of the big surprises with Israel’s election on Tuesday was second-place finisher, Yair Lapid. He is a household name in the Jewish State, but a relatively unknown quantity around the world. That is especially true when it comes to Lapid’s views on foreign policy. In his victory speech last night, this is all the candidate had to say about international affairs.
… we are facing a world that is liable to ostracize us because of the deadlock in the peace process.
Not much there there. But this is also how Lapid ran his campaign. It was heavy on domestic issues, thin on foreign policy matters. And that is probably one factor that helped him and his Yesh Atid (“There is a future,” in Hebrew) party do so well at the polls.
“They wanted to focus on presenting themselves as an alternative on what they think are the issues that most concern voters,” said Mark Heller of Tel Aviv University. “Namely, social and economic issues, the quality of governance and the state of democracy inside Israel.”
But now that Lapid and his party are being crowned as the kingmakers in Israeli politics, the question is, where do they stand on major foreign policy issues?
Here are some hints.
The Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman did an interview with Lapid back in October and asked him how he would handle Iran differently than Netanyahu.
Netanyahu made two big mistakes on the Iranian issue. The first was instigating a conflict with the US administration, betting on the wrong pony and thinking [Republican candidate Mitt] Romney would win the election. We have an Israeli prime minister who shares the biggest sponsor as the Republican candidate in Sheldon Adelson and says things that hurt the president in an election year. It has created a situation in which it became an Israel-Iran problem and not a world-Iran problem. Netanyahu made it into a local conflict between Israelis and Iranians, and this is wrong. There is only one way to end the Iranian nuclear threat: the fall of the ayatollahs. An Israeli strike would only delay the Iranian nuclear problem. It would enable the Iranians to say we have been attacked by a nuclear country and now we have no choice but to develop nuclear weapons. The way to make the ayatollahs fall is to strengthen the sanctions. Average Iranian citizens don’t understand why they have 60% inflation, why they can’t get chicken and they can’t get gas in one of the world’s biggest oil suppliers. If this continues, the Iranian people won’t stand for it. If you listen to Netanyahu, he is more interested in giving ultimatums to the US. It is hubris to give an ultimatum to the US. People tend to forget that the plane Netanyahu is sending to bomb Iran is an American plane. He thinks he can drag America to do what it doesn’t want to do. He is leading Israel to war too soon, before it’s necessary. Like Netanyahu, I think that if we came to the point of no return, Israel would have to bomb, but there is still a lot left to do to avoid that. I had problems with Netanyahu’s UN speech. Who gives a date on war in advance? You only go to war when you have no choice. My red line is the same as that of the professional security men I talk with.
The security man Lapid presumably talks with more than any other is Yaakov Peri, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service and number five on Yesh Atid’s candidate list. Peri took part in a debate earlier this month at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, along with three other candidates from major parties, and he talked about what needs to happen to make peace with the Palestinians.
“Israel should do everything – its utmost – in order to come back, to go back, to the negotiation table and to find a compromise,” Peri said.
“I know that we have partners,” he said, warning against allowing the collapse of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, whose leaders have been much derided by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Not easy partners,” Peri said, but “we should come to an agreement or a compromise which will build two states to the two people.”
Peri also offers a captivating quote during his appearance in the Oscar-nominated documentary, The Gatekeepers. After criticizing Israeli politicians on camera for utterly failing to make smart strategic decisions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Peri tells the filmmaker that retiring from the job of Shin Bet chief means, “you become a bit of a leftist.”
But that is a label Yair Lapid rejects. “I am not a leftist,” Lapid told Gil Hoffman, while answering a question about who should blamed for the stalled negotiations with the Palestinians.
I think the Palestinians should blame mostly themselves. After the disengagement, instead of building hospitals and schools, they fired rockets. But if an Israeli prime minister would be really determined to have negotiations, there would be negotiations. I think Netanyahu is too scared of [activist Moshe] Feiglin and [coalition chairman Ze’ev] Elkin and other extremists in his party, so he took the most dangerous conflict, delayed dealing with it, and made our children have to deal with double the number of Palestinians just so he will have an easier time passing the next Likud convention in peace.
Lapid has said he will not join a coalition that refuses to return to negotiations with the Palestinians. But he has also gone out of his way to distinguish himself from Israeli leaders like Tzipi Livni, who campaigned heavily on a pledge to rekindle the peace process. For a venue to launch his campaign, for example, Lapid chose Ariel.
“You don’t come to negotiations only with an olive branch, the way the left does, or only with a gun, the way the right does,” he said in a speech at the Ariel settlement deep in the West Bank.
“You come to find a solution. We’re not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but for a divorce agreement we can live with.”
As Jeffrey Goldberg points out, Lapid has avoided taking positions that might lead Israelis to think of him as left of center on security.
Yair Lapid and his party — a “center center” party, in Israeli parlance — might agitate for new negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. But Lapid has shifted his rhetoric since moving from journalism into politics. Two years ago, he wrote caustically about the settlers: “Four percent of the country’s residents cannot decide that they are the only ones who know what’s right.” In this campaign, though, Lapid spoke about the importance of holding onto those large settlements closest to the 1967 “Green Line,” and he spoke repeatedly about the paramount importance of Jerusalem, which he said is “the reason we are here and if we have to fight for it we will fight for it.”
Still, Mark Heller doubts that Lapid and his Yesh Atid colleagues would end up joining a government coalition and then focus solely on their social and economic agenda at the expense of other issues. “They can’t and won’t,” Heller told me, “completely abdicate everything in the foreign and defense field to the other parties.”
Heller said he could see Lapid advocating for more centrist and pragmatic positions on foreign policy, especially compared to those of hardliners from the Jewish Home and Likud parties.