Israel’s New Kingmaker
Yair Lapid's critics have dismissed the former TV personality as vapid and uninformed. They couldn't be more wrong.
TEL AVIV — Though one of Israel’s best known public figures, Yair Lapid, the surprise star of the Jan. 22 election, is a mystery abroad. He now finds himself in the unexpected position of kingmaker, free to dictate terms to a badly weakened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Lapid will likely emerge as Netanyahu’s senior coalition partner, giving him significant influence over the direction of Israeli policy. There is a growing possibility that the former columnist and television anchor will be Israel’s next foreign minister, putting his formidable media skills to good use as his country’s top diplomat. But on policy, Lapid would enter the Foreign Ministry as something of an enigma: During the campaign, he focused largely on middle-class domestic issues such as compulsory army conscription for the ultra-Orthodox, and housing and education reform.
It would be wrong, however, to underestimate Lapid. He isn’t simply a charismatic reader of teleprompters, and his worldview is far from "vapid," as some have dismissed it. Based on the available evidence, Lapid, a self-described centrist, has a definite worldview that hews closer to the left than the right. The signs are encouraging that he will be a moderating influence on the next Netanyahu government.
The first hint as to Lapid’s worldview can be gleaned from the people with whom he surrounds himself. Lapid formed the Yesh Atid ("There is a Future") party less than a year ago, after which he personally handpicked the slate of candidates. Out of these 18 future parliamentarians, three can be described as holding foreign policy or security backgrounds.
Yaakov Perry, number five on the party list, is a former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s vaunted internal security agency. Perry, along with five other former Shin Bet chiefs, made headlines recently after taking part in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers, a damning indictment of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. The title alludes to the film’s main thesis — that for all of Israel’s security and intelligence successes keeping the Palestinians at bay, there is no military solution to the conflict. "When you retire," Perry says in one of the film’s most illuminating lines, "you become a bit of a leftist."
Number six on the party list and a close Lapid confidante is Ofer Shelah, a former military affairs commentator and sports broadcaster. Shelah is best known as a harsh critic of Israel’s handling of the 2006 Lebanon War and the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead. His book Captives in Lebanon is a methodically researched denunciation of Israel’s political and military echelon during the 2006 conflict; after the 2009 war, he called Israel "a crazy country" that had "adopted the ethical scale of Vladimir Putin" because of what he perceived as the needless prolongation of the campaign.
Number 19 on the Yesh Atid list, and the last to get into the next Knesset, is Ronen Hoffman, an expert on foreign policy, negotiations, and governance based out of Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center. Hoffman is a professional who has proven himself more comfortable with the left than the right: He previously served as an aide to two Labor prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, and took part in peace negotiations with Syria in the 1990s.
The potentially most influential Lapid associate, however, doesn’t appear on any official lists. Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister, has been described as Lapid’s "close friend" — although this likely doesn’t do justice to the depth of their relationship.
Lapid has said more than once that the only two people at the deathbed of his father, Tommy, were himself and Olmert, Tommy’s closest friend for decades. Lapid fils idolized his late father, and says openly that he still "speaks" to him during long campaign drives. During the tense election campaign, Lapid — running on a squeaky-clean, outsider platform — was criticized by the media for his ties to Olmert, who was recently convicted for breach of trust and still faces further corruption charges. It would have been politically useful at the time for Lapid to distance himself from Olmert, yet he refused.
Now, with the election over, it seems hard to believe that Lapid won’t turn to his experienced friend for advice. And Olmert has been one of Netanyahu’s shrillest critics regarding Iran and the lack of peace negotiations. "Netanyahu is unable to make important decisions," Olmert said earlier this month. "[H]e shouldn’t be prime minister."
Lapid’s own public statements tend to echo the worldview of his closest confidants. While his speeches on security and foreign affairs are few, he did deliver a major policy address last October in the West Bank settlement city of Ariel. Some critics have dismissed the speech because of its locale, but Lapid went to Ariel precisely to deliver hard truths to the settler community. And while it is true that Lapid explicitly refused to divide Jerusalem in any future peace deal, he also delivered a scathing critique of Israel’s foreign policy under Netanyahu.
"I came here today," Lapid began, "to call for our return to the negotiating table, in order to work for a future agreement with the Palestinians." He then promised that he would not sit in any government that did not re-launch peace talks, a promise Yesh Atid has reiterated in recent days.
Lapid used the speech to position himself as clear-eyed and unsentimental on the peace process. "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. "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."
During negotiations, Lapid said, there would be no new settlements going up, but allowances would be made for "natural growth" in existing settlements. A final status agreement on a two-state solution, for Lapid, would see Israel retaining the three large settlement blocs, an undivided Jerusalem, and the Palestinian relinquishment of the refugee’s "right of return." These are consensus positions for much of the Israeli public, but based on other remarks in the Ariel speech, they could also be viewed as Lapid’s opening negotiating posture.
Lapid castigated Netanyahu for "wasting" the last four years, saying that the prime minister had taken "the central problem facing the country, and [thrown] it in the laps of our children." And he painted a dismal, self-defeating picture of Israel’s future if the problem was left to fester.
"Our children … will have 6 million, 7 million Palestinians [to deal with] — poorer, angrier, more frustrated and desperate; our children will have to deal with the next intifada; they are the ones who will have to deal with the return of terror attacks," he said. "Our children will be the ones that will have to deal with an economic crisis and growing international isolation; and our children will ultimately be the ones who return to those very same negotiations that we could be conducting right now, only on much worse terms."
Lapid rejected the prevailing notion, clung to by Netanyahu, that there was "no partner" on the Palestinian side. "These are the Palestinians, there are no others," Lapid said. "They’re here and they aren’t going anywhere, and the only thing that this ‘no partner’ policy has done is undermine Israel’s international standing and strengthened Hamas."
On Iran, Lapid played down the ability of a military strike to solve the nuclear issue, noting that while the option should remain on the table as a last resort, Israel’s security chiefs were all in agreement that it would only delay the Iranian program. The goal, he said, should be the fall of the Iranian regime, through "choking sanctions." The mistake, he said, was in thinking that Israel "had to solve the problem for the world, instead of animating the world to solve the problem for us."
Whether Lapid translates the above beliefs into actual policy change remains to be seen; his first test will arrive in a few days, when the coalition negotiations begin in earnest. But there is little doubt that Lapid holds a starkly different worldview than Netanyahu — less suspicious, more optimistic, and above all, internationalist.
Near the end of his speech, Lapid quoted John F. Kennedy: "Let us never negotiate out of fear but let us never fear to negotiate."
"I stand here, in Ariel," Lapid concluded, echoing a certain other U.S. president, "to say to the citizens of Israel: We need to stop letting fear dictate our lives, and start the journey toward hope."