(September 22, 2022 / JNS) In just 29 words on the stage at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, interim acting Prime Minister Yair Lapid could have completely transformed Israel’s fifth electoral landscape from the first four election cycles in the past two and a half years.
Speaking from the podium at one of the world’s largest international diplomatic forums, Lapid declared: “A two-state, two-peoples deal with the Palestinians is what is right for Israel’s security, for Israel’s economy, and for the future of our children. ”
In order to understand the implications of this statement for the Israeli political landscape, it is important to take a look at how Lapid, who has never managed to win an Israeli election as a prime ministerial candidate, came to be the one who would lead Israel represents the world stage to begin.
Israel is about to enter its fifth electoral cycle in less than three years. The first four inconclusive elections all focused on a single issue: whether then-incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was able to continue as Israel’s prime minister amid a string of corruption charges that were unlikely to carry weight in American or other Western courtrooms.
Challengers – including Lapid – have argued throughout successive campaigns that there is virtually no difference between left and right on important diplomatic and security issues.
Lapid finally succeeded in removing Netanyahu from office after the fourth campaign, despite a landslide victory by Netanyahu’s 13-seat Likud party in the election. Lapid prevented Netanyahu from forming a government by essentially bribing Naftali Bennett to chair the prime minister, even though Bennett received barely 5% of the popular vote, in exchange for Bennett’s defection from his own electoral base and the larger right-wing political camp ; Bennett also rescinded his repeated campaign promises that he would never be in a coalition with Lapid.
Lapid was able to offer his fellow parliamentarian Bennett the post of prime minister because he (Lapid) could not come close to forming a majority coalition government with himself at the helm. Bennett took the bait to pursue his personal ambition and became Prime Minister in a rotating arrangement with Lapid. The coalition they formed included every single left-wing MP; an Islamist, self-proclaimed anti-Zionist party that is an official chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood; and a handful of right-wing defectors who insisted Netanyahu’s continued rule posed a greater threat to Israel’s stability than bringing leftists and Islamists into key government ministries, including foreign affairs, defense, energy, health, the environment – and transportation.
All coalition members agreed on one thing: regardless of their different ideologies, the question of Palestinian statehood would not be raised. But despite the coalition agreement and the supposed right wing Bennett at the top, it quickly became clear that Lapid and his partners were setting the course for a return to a two-state paradigm in the future.
Defense Secretary Benny Gantz – a former party colleague of Lapid – and other left-wing ministers, including far-left Meretz Party members, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg and Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Frej, all met with Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority Ramallah broke a nearly 10-year boycott by Israeli government ministers led by Netanyahu.
Gantz even went so far as to receive Abbas at his home in Rosh Ha’ayin, the first time Abbas had traveled to undisputed Israeli territory on a diplomatic visit in more than a decade. Gantz repeatedly argued that the meetings dealt only with essential security cooperation between Israel and the PA
Barely a year after its formation, the Bennett-led government collapsed—as many had predicted. According to the tortuous coalition agreement, the dissolution of Parliament and Bennett’s subsequent resignation immediately triggered Lapid’s appointment as “acting” prime minister pending the formation of a new government. Lapid has held his temporary post for almost three months. New elections are scheduled for November 1st.
Lapid has enjoyed every moment of his brief tenure as Prime Minister. He has effectively used the caretaker post as a base of operations for his election campaign to demonstrate to the Israeli public that he is capable of occupying the top spot despite having no security background and having had little success in brief stints as finance minister or foreign minister.
As acting prime minister, Lapid traveled to Jordan in July to meet with King Abdullah II (whom he also met on the sidelines of the UNGA this week). He traveled to France to meet President Emmanuel Macron. He traveled to Germany to meet Chancellor Olaf Scholz. He received US President Joe Biden in Jerusalem. Lapid also launched a three-day military campaign against Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza and ongoing anti-terrorist campaigns in Judea and Samaria.
On the sidelines of the UNGA, Lapid met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, British Prime Minister Liz Truss, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and others.
Meanwhile, Lapid has publicly insisted in Israel that Netanyahu – in his 12 years as prime minister – has damaged Israel’s ties with the Democratic Party, Western Europe and America’s large Jewish diaspora community. For Lapid and his intended constituents, Netanyahu was the only campaign issue.
But after Lapid’s speech at the UN, a clear distinction between Israel’s left and right camps has reemerged. And it has strong potential to become the defining issue of Israel’s fifth election cycle.
Officially professing his belief that “a two-state, two-peoples deal with the Palestinians is what’s right for Israel’s security, for Israel’s economy, and for the future of our children,” Lapid has the voting paradigm of “anyone but Netanyahu.” ‘ with Lapid as the hopeful someone back on the issue that has defined the difference between left and right since former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the infamous Oslo Accords in 1993.
The Oslo Accords divided the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria into separate but non-contiguous areas under Israeli and Palestinian control, and were intended to lay the groundwork for a formal two-state agreement based on a land-for-peace paradigm.
But in the 29 years since the accord was signed, Israel has learned the hard way that it can never expect peace in return for land. The PA has rejected formal offers by former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert to establish a state and well over 90% of the disputed territories. An Israeli withdrawal from all of Gaza led to a Hamas takeover and the launching of more than 20,000 rockets into Israeli territory.
And the PA continues to incite against Israel. It spends large chunks of its annual budget paying stipends directly to terrorists in Israeli jails, as well as to the families of would-be terrorists killed in a first-degree assassination attempt, in a terror-financing scheme it says “Pay to Kill.” In the past year, Israel has coped with a noticeable increase in terrorist attacks.
Additionally, the PA and its dangerous network of NGOs are spearheading an international campaign of delegitimization against Israel, which is manifested in boycott, divestment and sanctions efforts around the world.
Israel’s right-wing politicians, who are by and large more traditional and religiously faithful, understand that an Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria, often referred to as the West Bank, will never lead to peace. Rather, it will lead to the creation of a hostile, anti-Israeli state in the biblical heartland of the Jewish nation that looks more like Syria than Bahrain.
Israel’s left-wing politicians, who are by and large secular and progressive, want a divorce from the Palestinians at all costs, hoping that the cession of territory and the creation of a Palestinian state will somehow protect Israeli democracy and end dangerous and false Western claims (writes the PA) that Israel is a kind of apartheid state.
So far, Lapid, who holds both left-wing and progressive views, has positioned himself as “centre” with the help of the largely left-wing Israeli media.
But Lapid’s speech clearly identifies him as a leader of Israel’s left wing and shows where he and his ruling coalition will take Israel if he is elected permanent prime minister.
In his address, Lapid explained that “despite all obstacles, a large majority of Israelis still support the vision of this two-state solution today. I’m one of them.”
But a poll aired immediately after the speech on Israel’s left-leaning news program Channel 12 found that only 28 percent of Israelis actually support the creation of a Palestinian state.
The leader of the far left Meretz party, Zahava Gal-On, called Lapid’s speech a “historic speech” and added in a tweet: “Finally the vision of peace is on the agenda. Meretz will stand to Lapid’s left to make his vision a reality. To end the cycle of bloodshed, to end control over millions of Palestinians.”
Meanwhile, members of Israel’s right wing have ranted about Lapid’s controversial statements.
In a lengthy statement immediately after the address, Netanyahu said: “After the right-wing government I led removed the Palestinian state from the global agenda, after we introduced four historic peace deals with Arab countries, bypassing the Palestinian veto, Lapid is bringing the Palestinians back to the top of the world stage and put Israel squarely in the Palestinian pit. Lapid has said in the past he is ready to “evacuate 90,000 Israelis to establish a Palestinian state.” Now he intends to bring them a state of terror in the heart of the country, a state that will threaten us all.”
Right-wing Home Secretary Ayelet Shaked, a former Bennett ally, told Channel 13 that “most Israelis are against a Palestinian state”. She slammed Lapid’s speech, insisting that the very coalition agreement that ultimately led to Lapid’s interim government specifically called for bringing the issue of Palestinian statehood to the table.
Among many other issues that truly divide Israel’s left and right, the most serious and existential issue that has divided Israel’s political camp for the past three decades has now come to the fore again. It could be a crucial blunder for Lapid in his faint hopes of defeating the majority of Israel’s right-wing voters.
Whether or not Lapid creates an election upset, or whether Netanyahu reemerges as prime minister, the main problem facing Israelis during the current election is now a matter of substance, not just personality.
Alex Traiman is the CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of the Jewish News Syndicate.