NEW YORK — Yair Lapid may have lost face in Israel, but in New York on Monday evening, the audience was eating out of his hands.
Israel’s finance minister and newest political leader appeared at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y for a candid conversation with Charlie Rose, one of America’s foremost political interviewers. The two discussed Lapid’s meteoric rise within Israel’s political ranks, his views on Israeli domestic and foreign issues, and his present and future political aspirations.
An avowed centrist, Lapid alluded to the US government shutdown as an example of the importance of reaching out beyond party lines.
“The greatest political risk I had to take so far was reaching compromises,” he told Rose. “In a world of purists, to reach out to the other side and try to find a working compromise is an unpopular move.”
Lapid’s remarks were for Israeli ears as well — Lapid’s own unpopular compromises on the Israeli state budget had caused his approval rate to drop to 21%.
Lapid, who stated he intends to run for prime minister in the future, courted the audience with liberal values on domestic issues and right-sloping attitudes toward the peace process and Iran, a combination particularly well-suited to the venue’s left-leaning yet Zionist audience.
Lapid says he’s not looking for a ‘happy marriage with the Palestinians, but for a divorce we can live with’
Stating that he was not looking for a “happy marriage with the Palestinians, but for a divorce we can live with,” Lapid asserted that a two-state solution is crucial for Israel’s future, but that Jerusalem must remain its undivided capital, and that the large settlement blocs must remain within its borders.
Asked how an agreement of that sort could work out in practice, he remained vague, joking that in Middle Eastern negotiations “you don’t tell people ahead of time what you are willing to give.” The gaps in his narrative were effectively smoothed over by his charismatic delivery and undeniable charm.
Lapid, a popular TV show host and journalist, surprised the Israeli public by announcing in January 2012 he would leave his successful media career to enter politics. He did so, he answered Rose, because after telling people for so long what was wrong with the country, “I felt it’s about time I put my mouth where my money is.” He added that it was the wish of his father, the centrist politician Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, who told son Yair on his deathbed, “I’m leaving you with a family [to care for], and a country.”
Championing the cause of Israel’s struggling middle class with a platform focused on social and economic change rather than the stalemated peace process, Lapid’s new party, Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”) won an unexpected 19 seats in the Knesset in January’s elections, becoming Israel’s second largest party.
“I was the only one in Israel who wasn’t surprised by this,” Lapid told Rose, only half-jokingly.
But Lapid’s golden boy status dissipated quickly once he became finance minister. Facing a huge deficit, he ended up passing a two-year austerity budget with tax increases and subsidy cuts that hit hard the people he claimed to represent. Two months after his nomination, a poll on Israel’s Channel 2 revealed 50 percent of the population considered his appointment a mistake.
Still trying to regain his base, Lapid reasserted his loyalty to the middle class time and again throughout the evening, and managed to gain the audience’s sympathy in the process.
“I’m making a quarter of what I used to make and working twice as hard, but at least now everybody hates me,” he told Rose, to the audience’s laughter.
‘I’m making a quarter of what I used to make and working twice as hard, but at least now everybody hates me’
After touching upon Lapid’s late father’s past as a Holocaust survivor, and Lapid’s recent official visit to his father’s birth land, Hungary (where he learned that “anti-Semitism still exists”), Rose shifted gears to hard-nosed policy questions.
Though Lapid identifies himself as “a devoted supporter of the peace process,” Rose confronted him with quotes from a recent interview in The New York Times in which he expressed among other things that Israel should not change its settlement policy to revive the peace process; that Jerusalem should not be the capital of the Palestinian state; that Israel would’t stop natural settlement expansion; and that East Jerusalem lands captured from Jordan in the Six Day War and later annexed, such as the Gilo neighborhood, must stay Israeli because “we didn’t come here for nothing.”
So how exactly does Lapid’s stance differ from that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s, Rose inquired?
Saying that he went very quickly from being part of the media to being misquoted by it, Lapid asserted that some settlements would indeed need to be evacuated, and some expansion stopped. He evaded particulars by stating that past negotiations have stalled not only over issues of land but also over the Palestinians’ fear, hatred, and mistrust.
“The Palestinians want peace and justice, but we want peace and security,” said Lapid.
Stating that he differs from Netanyahu by not demanding the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, he nonetheless stood firm on the issue of Jerusalem, explaining that the idea of an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is central to the idea of a Jewish state.
The Jewish religion, however, should be disentangled from Israeli statesmanship, Lapid declared — to the obvious discomfort of some audience members.
Speaking of one of his keystone efforts, the universal draft initiative, which would induct into the IDF thousands of formerly exempted ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, he downplayed the backlash, quoting president Clinton to the effect that “Everybody wants to change the world, but no one wants to change.” Lapid equivocated, saying that in the long term “we’re doing the Haredim a huge favor.”
When asked by members of the audience why he doesn’t try appeasing the ultra-Orthodox by avoiding posting on Facebook on Shabbat, for example, he answered, “I tell no one what to do with their Shabbat and I want no one to tell me what to do with mine.”
‘I tell no one what to do with their Shabbat and I want no one to tell me what to do with mine’
Of his own religious views Lapid quipped, “I believe in God — I don’t believe in anyone who speaks on his behalf.”
When asked for his opinion about President Barack Obama’s unfulfilled threats toward Syria, Lapid answered that since diplomacy could take place only after the threat of military action became real, it was a good method and a good result.
Asked if the scenario made him apprehensive about the US keeping its ultimatum to attack Iran if it continued to race toward a nuclear weapon, Lapid smiled and said that though he believes in America, Israel must care for its own security.
“But will Israel attack without America?” pressed Rose.
Chuckling, Lapid replied that though some language barrier may exist between him and Rose, “The reason I didn’t answer the first time was not because I didn’t understand the question.” The audience cheered.