Government won’t neglect Palestinian issue ‘forever and ever,’ Lapid says

Foreign minister acknowledges that conflict still must be addressed after Bennett avoids topic in UN speech; admits coalition has work ahead of it to repair ties with Diaspora

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid gestures as he speaks to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Sept. 9, 2021. (Alexander Nemenov/Pool Photo via AP)
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid gestures as he speaks to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Sept. 9, 2021. (Alexander Nemenov/Pool Photo via AP)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Tuesday that Israel’s government will not neglect the Palestinian issue “forever and ever,” just over a week after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett left the matter out of his speech to the United Nations entirely.

The comments from Lapid to the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual conference appeared to highlight underlying tensions within his broad-base coalition and could possibly offer a preview of policies he may seek to pursue when he takes over from Bennett as prime minister next year.

Asked to give an update of efforts being made to expand the Abraham Accords, Lapid indicated that pursuing normalization deals with Middle Eastern countries would not serve as a substitute for restarting moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.

“I wouldn’t name names because this will harm the process, but of course, we’re working with the United States and with the new friends in the Emirates, in Bahrain and Morocco… in order to expand this to other countries,” Lapid said before adding, “This doesn’t mean we’re neglecting forever and ever the Palestinian issue that we have also to work on. We will always have to keep an eye both on Gaza and on Hezbollah up north.”

Israel’s government includes a diverse cast of parties, ranging from Bennett’s hard-right Yamina, which opposes granting Palestinians full political sovereignty, to the leftist Meretz, whose leaders just met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and which is outspoken in its criticism of the Israeli settlement movement and control over Palestinians in the West Bank. Lapid’s Yesh Atid party is seen as falling in the amorphous center of the Israeli political spectrum.

The odd mixture of parties has led to a willingness to promote economic measures to marginally improve the lives of Palestinians on the one hand, but a refusal by Bennett to enter political negotiations or to even meet with Abbas on the other.

This position was on full display at the UN when the issue went unmentioned in Bennett’s speech last month. “Israelis don’t wake up in the morning thinking about conflict,” the premier told the General Assembly.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 27, 2021, at UN headquarters in New York. (John Minchillo/Pool/AFP)

A diplomatic official briefing reporters afterward said Bennett’s intention was not to suggest that Palestinians do not exist, but that “in the past though, there was an obsession with this issue and it [was allowed to] define us.”

Lapid also took a shot at former Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer during the remote conversation with JFNA chairman Mark Wilf, beamed to virtual attendees of the conference. Dermer suggested in May that Israel should prioritize the “passionate and unequivocal” support of evangelical Christians over that of American Jews, who he said are “disproportionately among our critics.”

“I was a bit shocked to hear certain officials from the former government discussing other communities within the United States as the main relations of the Israeli government. This cannot happen,” Lapid said. “The most important relation[ship] that we have (in the US) is with American Jewry because it is us … we are part of the same thing.”

“We have to work on certain issues that were neglected for a long time, like the Kotel framework, like the conversion bill that we’re working on now,” he said, referring to two issues which served to fracture Israel-Diaspora relations under the previous government.

“It might take some time in a very complicated coalition, but I myself am on this making sure on a daily basis making sure that this is happening,” he said.

Several officials in Bennett’s government have pledged to implement an agreement to expand the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall, which former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on due to pressure from ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

The government is also working to formulate regulations regarding recognition of conversions to Judaism. The previous government sought to advance legislation that would have only recognized Orthodox conversions authorized by the ultra-Orthodox state rabbinate, leading to a flare-up in Israel-Diaspora tensions. The bill was eventually frozen and no progress on the matter has been made since.

“We’re going to work on this not only as a token of goodwill toward our brothers and sisters across the ocean, but also because I think it is important for Israel to be this kind of tolerant welcoming country to our friends and family abroad,” Lapid said Tuesday.

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