A leader in waiting, Lapid slowly builds a doctrine for the Trump era
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A leader in waiting, Lapid slowly builds a doctrine for the Trump era

Head of centrist Yesh Atid party, who has seen surge in recent polls, says using Trump to build outposts and not peace would be a grave mistake

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, in his office at the Knesset (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, in his office at the Knesset (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Squandering the political capital created by the arrival of US President Donald Trump at the White House on settlement building would be a historic mistake, according to former minister Yair Lapid, a centrist politician who some see as a possible successor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In an interview, Lapid, the head of the opposition Yesh Atid party, took a less bullish view of the new president than Netanyahu, who has openly feted Trump’s election as a welcome change after years of strained ties with Obama, but expressed cautious optimism over the new United States leader.

“While it is important and good that there is a friendly president in the White House. We don’t know how this will look in the long term,” Lapid told The Times of Israel last week.

In the telling of Lapid, who has called for “separation” from the Palestinians, Trump’s heavy slant toward Israel regarding the conflict with the Palestinians will help dismantle some of the international pressure on Israel to accede to Palestinian statehood demands.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

However, Israel must use that breathing space wisely, said Lapid, and not as Netanyahu has done, announcing some 6,000 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as plans for the first officially sanctioned new settlement in 25 years.

“The Palestinian Authority’s strategy of putting heavy international political pressure on us has collapsed. We have freedom of action,” Lapid said. “But this is also our chance to dictate, from a position of strength, what we want. If it’s squandered on building another four outposts, that will be a mistake that will be mourned for generations.”

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid surrounded by policemen during a visit to the Lion's Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, the site of an attempted stabbing attack on October 12, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid surrounded by policemen during a visit to the Lion’s Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, the site of an attempted stabbing attack on October 12, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Instead, Lapid called for the convening of an international conference to try to resolve the situation with Gaza and seek progress with the Palestinian Authority, an idea he has pushed for the last year, though one which has made little headway in diplomatic circles.

Despite saying he wants to make peace with the Palestinians, Lapid drew the line at speaking to Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian terrorist serving five life sentences in Israeli prison but also a popular politician.

And he said he would not negotiate directly with terror group Hamas, which rules Gaza, though he does support giving the Strip a seaport in exchange for a long-term truce, including a cessation of tunnel-digging and rocket fire.

“It’s a win-win situation. You’re starting a kind of disarmament, preventing rocket fire, and preventing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” he said.

He also expressed full support for moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and warned against being intimidated by threats from the Arab world opposing such a move.

‘Integrated power’ doctrine

For now, this is just the talk of a politician with little say on whom Israel does and doesn’t talk to. But that could change.

Recent polls have shown Lapid’s party surpassing Netanyahu’s Likud, making him a potential prime minister or at least a kingmaker.

Elections are theoretically years away, but with Netanyahu under investigation for a raft of scandals, some analysts believe they may be in the offing sooner than planned.

A former journalist and son of late minister Tommy Lapid, Lapid rode to power in 2013 as a freshman politician on an anti-corruption platform.

On the topic of suspicions that Netanyahu took hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of gifts from wealthy businessmen, Lapid was unequivocal.

“Did the prime minister say it was permissible to accept gifts? I’m telling you it is not. Absolutely not. Anyone in the political world knows that accepting gifts is not allowed, so they don’t accept them. It’s against the law,” he said.

Despite his party’s initial focus on domestic concerns, Lapid has used his time as a lawmaker to fashion himself as something of a shadow foreign minister, with the role of top diplomat currently held by Netanyahu himself.

In an essay published last week on the website of the Institute for National Security Studies think tank, Lapid called for an “integrated power” doctrine, by which the country would combine its military economic and diplomatic strength to be “so strong that its enemies know in advance that they will lose in any war against it.”

Israeli tanks stationed near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip on May 6, 2016 as Israeli forces search for Hamas attack tunnels leading into southern Israel. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)
Israeli tanks stationed near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip on May 6, 2016 as Israeli forces search for Hamas attack tunnels leading into southern Israel. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)

“Israel’s power must not be in proportion to its size or the tasks that it faces, and our enemies must know that…. A strong Israel is much more than a strong army. It enjoys economic prosperity, social cohesion, and a shared ethos, and has unshakable strategic alliances, with international support and a decisive advantage in quality and technology,” he wrote.

“Those are the basic conditions. Without them we cannot be strong enough to prevent war, win if one should break out, or work for peace. The major task of Israel’s prime minister is to build this integrated power, which brings the military and civilian components together into a single fist.”

Without directly criticizing Netanyahu, Lapid bemoaned the lack of a clear strategy or guidance from above as to how the defense establishment should act, saying that true leadership must bring people to places that they had not thought about.

But his waxing on good governance contains little in actual policy prescriptions, i.e., pointing out where the aforementioned places are. There was no mention in his article of an agreement with the Palestinians or the need for settlements, blocs or no blocs.

The essay, rather, seemed to show Lapid as he has long been widely seen: cautious, conservative, winking at the right wing and the left wing alike.

Asked how, with no combat experience, he could criticize Netanyahu on security given the latter’s time in an elite commando unit, Lapid responded in the interview that the prime minister’s “strengths are his weaknesses.”

“Netanyahu has a perception of what a commando unit on a mission should do. It’s only human that the macro should trickle into the micro, but currently there is no comprehensive approach to security. A prime minister’s task is not to move Border Police companies from one hilltop to another. That’s not the job,” Lapid said.

“The job is to combine the political, economic, and security power into one great force. Macro decisions are needed. The prime minister is not a super chief of staff.”

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