Yair Lapid delivered his first televised speech as prime minister on Saturday evening, denouncing the “extreme, violent and vicious” discourse in Israeli politics and urging unity and respectful public debate, ahead of the country’s fifth election in three and a half years.
Speaking from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Lapid said Israel seeks peace with the Palestinians, but will take determined action against anyone “seeking our demise,” particularly in thwarting Iran’s nuclear program.
Lapid, who replaced Naftali Bennett on Friday and became Israel’s 14th premier following the dissolution of the Knesset, is serving in an interim capacity until a new government is formed after the November 1 election, although that vote could potentially be deadlocked once again and extend the country’s years-long political stalemate.
“The State of Israel is bigger than all of us. More important than any of us. It was here before us, and will be here long after us,” he said on Saturday, adding: “We must choose the common good; that which unites us. There will always be disagreements, the question is how we manage them, and how we make sure they don’t manage us.”
“The great Israeli question is actually why in a period in which we have wide national agreement on all the important topics, the levels of hate and anxiety within Israeli society are so high? Why is polarization more threatening than ever?” he continued.
“The answer is — politics. In Israel, extremism doesn’t come from the streets to politics. It’s the opposite. It flows like lava from politics to the streets. The political sphere has become more and more extreme, violent and vicious, and it’s dragging Israeli society along with it. This we must stop. This is our challenge.”
That was an apparent reference to the rhetoric led by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been leading a scathing campaign against the ideologically diverse government that ousted him from power a year ago, focusing particularly on Lapid and Bennett’s willingness to form a coalition with the Islamist Ra’am party.
Lapid opened his speech by thanking his predecessor Bennett — with whom he had signed a power-sharing deal for a leadership rotation — for the “orderly transition of power.”
“I want to start by thanking the 13th Prime Minister of the State of Israel, Naftali Bennett. For your decency, for your friendship and for leading the government this past year to economic and security achievements not seen here for years,” he said, adding “a special thank you for allowing the citizens of Israel to see this week an orderly transition between people who keep agreements and believe in one another.”
It was a jab at Netanyahu, who broke a 2020 power rotation agreement with Benny Gantz and who last year only held a brief, 30-minute transition meeting with incoming prime minister Bennett.
Lapid set out what he said should be Israelis’ shared goal: “A Jewish, democratic, liberal, big, strong, advanced and prosperous Israel.”
“We believe that Israel must be a liberal democracy in which every citizen has the right to change the government and set the course of their life. Nobody can be denied their fundamental rights: respect, liberty, freedom of employment, and the right to personal security,” he said.
“We believe that Israel is a Jewish state,” he added. “Its character is Jewish. Its identity is Jewish. Its relations with its non-Jewish citizens are also Jewish. The book of Leviticus says: ‘But the stranger who dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself.’”
“We believe that the Israeli economy must be based on free-market principles, on the creativity and dynamism of Israeli technology, and that our job is to protect those who have nothing. To provide a fair opportunity for every child, everywhere.”
In a starkly different stance from that of Netanyahu on peace talks with the Palestinians, Lapid said: “We believe that so long as Israel’s security needs are met, Israel is a country that seeks peace. Israel stretches out its hand to all the peoples of the Middle East, including the Palestinians, and says: the time has come for you to recognize that we’ll never move from here, let’s learn to live together.”
Referring to normalization deals with Arab countries signed by Netanyahu’s previous government — and hinting at potential similar future ones, Lapid said: “We believe there is a great blessing in the Abraham Accords, a great blessing in the security and economic momentum created at the Negev Summit with the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Morocco, and that there will be a great blessing in the agreements yet to come.”
Such a deal is reported to be in the works with Saudi Arabia, with US President Joe Biden set to visit both countries later this month.
Lapid paid tribute to “our greatest friend and ally, the United States,” and vowed to harness the international community in the “struggle against antisemitism and the delegitimization of Israel.”
Lapid said Israel’s gravest threat was Iran, promising: “We’ll do whatever we must to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability, or entrenching itself on our borders.”
“I say to everyone seeking our demise, from Gaza to Tehran, from the shores of Lebanon to Syria: don’t test us. Israel knows how to use its strength against every threat, against every enemy,” he warned.
Netanyahu’s Likud party issued a response criticizing Lapid’s speech, saying he failed to address the “crazy” rise of prices over the past year, and alleging he was trying to “conceal the fact that the only government he can form is with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Joint List.” The predominantly Arab Joint List party has never been in an Israeli coalition government.
“On Friday, it was revealed that he sent his chief of staff Naama Schultz to the [Islamic Movement’s] Shura Council with an open check,” the Likud statement said, referring to comments made by a former diplomatic adviser to Bennett in relation to the Muslim body to which the Ra’am party adheres.
“Such a government is a real danger to Israel’s security,” Likud said. “The choice is a blackmailed Lapid government that includes the Muslim Brotherhood and the Joint List or a strong national government led by Netanyahu and the Likud that will return hope to Israel.”
Likud also took issue with Lapid not mentioning that the Abraham Accords were signed under Netanyahu’s government, argued that Lapid has “maintained a deafening silence” on the Iranian threat over the past year, and claimed that Lapid’s own rhetoric and actions have been divisive.