Lapid calls for peace talks, but says Olmert went too far

Yesh Atid head tells US Jewish leaders he’ll promote equality for all religious denominations, says ‘no one can claim ownership’ over God

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

MK Yair Lapid (photo credit: Avi Hayun)
MK Yair Lapid (photo credit: Avi Hayun)

Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid asserted Tuesday that the time had come for Israel to return to serious peace talks with the Palestinians, even if previous attempts to seal an agreement, most notably that of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, were too generous toward the Palestinians.

“Both parties understand that they have to go back to the Road Map,” Lapid told American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem – a reference to an outline laid out by president George W. Bush. “We have to jumpstart [the process]… People have to understand that we’re talking about the two-state solution.”

However, before a full Palestinian state can be established, he said, there first had to be an interim stage, during which the Palestinian Authority would be granted the status of “a semi-country within temporary borders.”

Lapid noted that he had “high hopes” for President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel.

He also said that despite the need for territorial compromise, the prospect of concessions “hurt” him.

“I mean, I look at these territories as part of Greater Israel, but I understand that this dream might be postponed for another 1,000 years,” Lapid said, “because the other option is having a country that is not Jewish. I want to live in a Jewish country and in order to live in a Jewish country, I have to somehow… I don’t want to say get rid of, but separate myself from the 3.3 million Palestinians we have right now between the [Mediterranean] Sea and the eastern border of Israel.”

Lapid maintained that Olmert — whose premiership marked the last time serious negotiations took place between Israel and the Palestinians — had been too generous on issues such as Jerusalem  (which Olmert offered to divide) and the right of return claimed by millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants (where Olmert reportedly offered a symbolic return of a small number of Palestinian under the rubric of family reunification).

“I think the Olmert administration went too far, and I think they made the mistake of starting with issues that should be postponed — like Jerusalem; like the right of return,” he said.

“I’m against any kind of withdrawal from Jerusalem,” Lapid declared, drawing applause from the assembly at the annual Israel mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Jerusalem is not only a place, it is also an idea. I mean, this is the founding ethos of this country, and countries do not give up parts of their ethos.”

Lapid’s statements came a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud-Yisrael Beytenu faction is in the midst of negotiations with Yesh Atid in an effort to form a coalition, reiterated his support for a two-state solution to the conflict.

A likely senior partner of Netanyahu and Lapid in a future coalition, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, on Tuesday dismissed the possibility of any kind of Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“There is no room in our small but wonderful God-given tract for another state,” Bennett said in a Knesset speech that stressed Israel’s Jewish religious heritage as a cornerstone of its society. “It won’t happen. Friends, before every discussion on the territories, we need to declare: ‘The land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel.’ Only then can we start the debate.”

During his speech to the US Jewish leaders Tuesday, Lapid touched upon another hot-button topic, pledging to fight the Chief Rabbinate’s control over life-cycle events in Israel. He also promised to use his political power as the head of the Knesset’s second-largest party to battle for the recognition of all major streams of Judaism in Israel.

“I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure equality for all movements of Judaism in Israel — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — in conversions, in budgets, in the eyes of the law,” Lapid said. “No one can claim ownership over the Jewish God. Small, old petty politics cannot determine something as eternal as Jewish identity.”

Lapid, who is destined to become a senior minister if he joins the next government, also pledged to do his utmost to introduce civil marriages in Israel. Currently, Israelis can only get married through the Chief Rabbinate, which is dominated by ultra-Orthodox clergymen who do not recognize non-Orthodox Jewish movements.

“The complete dominance of the Orthodox rabbis over divorce and marriage is an insult to every free man,” Lapid said. “This is just wrong and it therefore has to disappear.”

The freshman legislator told the visiting Jewish leaders that many Diaspora Jews often felt that Israelis didn’t appreciate that they had “saved” the Jewish people from assimilation over the centuries. “So I want to use this opportunity to thank you for this, on behalf of myself and especially on behalf of my children,” Lapid said.

Bennett, the Jewish Home party leader, also addressed the conference, praising America’s Jewish community for its religious tolerance.

“We’ve got a lot to learn in Israel from you guys about accepting many colors and many different flavors, and not judging people by the size of their kippah. Here in Israel, we’re a bit too tribal, and that’s one of the things we want to solve,” said Bennett, whose parents immigrated to Israel from San Francisco. “The prime minister of Israel, in my opinion, should have two hats: one as the prime minister of the Israeli citizens and the second as the leader of all the Jews in the world.”

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