InterviewSeparation from the Palestinians, and normalization with the Arab world, is emphatically possible, says Yesh Atid leader

Lapid: Israel’s global standing has never been worse; I could change that

Self-styled shadow foreign minister worries about US military aid, slams EU envoy for Holocaust remark, and says Palestinians ‘should internalize’ IDF firepower

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

MK Yair Lapid during a Yesh Atid party meeting at the Knesset, November 23, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Yair Lapid during a Yesh Atid party meeting at the Knesset, November 23, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s standing in the world is at the lowest point in the country’s history, MK Yair Lapid said, sharply contradicting statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who argued this week that the international community wants to increase cooperation with Israel.

“It’s never been worse. Since 1948, our international status hasn’t been as bad as it is right now,” Lapid, 52, said. “And it’s a shame. It’s a shame because with a different way of handling things, we could have improved our image and our international stature — not in a heartbeat, but with a year or two of hard work.”

In an extensive interview with The Times of Israel on Wednesday, hours before he took off for Washington to attend the weekend’s Saban Forum — an annual gathering of American and Israeli politicians and opinion leaders — the head of the centrist Yesh Atid party said he did not want to directly attack the prime minister in an English-language publication. However, he criticized Netanyahu’s “complete lack of strategy” regarding the Palestinian issue and lambasted, generally, the government’s approach to foreign policy and public diplomacy.

During an hour-long conversation in his Knesset office, Lapid also explained why he rejects Netanyahu’s demand for Ramallah to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, arguing that it suffices for the Palestinians to remember the Israeli army’s firepower.

A descendant of Holocaust victims (his grandfather was killed in Mauthausen), Lapid further denounced comparisons of the European Union’s labeling of settlement goods with the Holocaust, such as have been made by Netanyahu and other government officials. At the same time, he criticized the EU ambassador to Israel for rejecting such juxtapositions, arguing that only Jews have the right to determine what should be likened to the Holocaust and what not.

‘We’re losing the world’s sympathy for our cause’

In recent months, Lapid has worked hard to position himself as Israel’s shadow foreign minister. He sent, for instance, protest letters to parliamentary foreign affairs councils in all 28 EU member states about labeling settlement goods and sat down with the foreign ministers of several important Western countries. These meetings did not leave him feeling optimistic about Israel’s international standing.

“I’m worried about the fact that we’re losing the world’s sympathy for our cause, even though I think it’s a just cause,” he said.

The only good thing that can be said about the current situation, he added half-jokingly, is that nobody cares about Israel anymore. “We’re saved by general boredom.” This has to do with the stalemate in the peace process, the fact that Israel does not make efforts to change the status quo, and with the world viewing Israel as a “problematic” state, he continued.

With his grim view of Israel’s relations with the world, Lapid stands in direct contrast to Netanyahu, who this week repeatedly asserted that many, if not most, countries want to be Israel’s friend.

“Whoever spoke about the collapse of our relations with the US, with the world in general and with the Arab world in particular, is mistaken,” the prime minister said at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting. He was referring to his past and future meetings with world leaders and to the fact that Israel had just announced the opening of a diplomatic office in Abu Dhabi (though it merely serves to represent Israel in an international agency for renewable energy and does not constitute an upgrade in ties with the United Arab Emirates).

“Israel’s position is very strong,” Netanyahu said Monday at a global climate conference in Paris, at the sidelines of which he spoke to dozens of world leaders. He had sit-down meetings with the leaders of France, Russia, Japan, Australia, India, Poland, Canada, and the Netherlands. In addition, he met and exchanged words with Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Prince Charles and many other high-profile dignitaries.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris on November 30, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris on November 30, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

“People are seeking out a close relationship with us. They understand that Israel is a major regional force, as well as a major global force in technology and cyber,” Netanyahu proudly declared.

Lapid, who was fired by Netanyahu unceremoniously from his post as finance minister last December, triggering early elections, is unimpressed.

“Let us not get confused by international gatherings like this one. This is what they do: They walk down the corridors and meet each other and talk to each other,” he said. “They talk to you about the things that are pleasant, instead of talking to you about the things that are unpleasant. I wouldn’t be confused by niceties.”

If anything, it is worrisome that world leaders don’t want to engage with Netanyahu about Israel’s “core problems,” Lapid posited. “How come no one wants to talk to our prime minister about the peace process and the fact that we have the Islamic State on our northern and southern borders? It’s not exactly encouraging to me that our prime minister is going to such meetings and nobody wants to talk to him about the major issues.”

In his experience, Lapid added, foreign dignitaries are all interested in one thing: What are you doing about the Palestinian question? There are 3.5 million Palestinians who are not going anywhere, and time is not on Israel’s side, they argue — some with friendly concern, others with outright hostility, he said.

In truth, there is ample reason for concern, according to Lapid. Jerusalem was kept out of the international community’s efforts to thwart Iran’s drive to a nuclear weapon; Israel is losing the fight against the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement; ties with the Americans are in shambles; and an anti-Israel resolution at the United Nations Security Council is just a matter of months away, he lamented.

Netanyahu might have characterized his November 9 meeting with President Obama as extremely positive, but “we got none of the things we’ve asked for,” Lapid said. “We didn’t get the extra $2 billion Netanyahu wanted for security. We didn’t get the compensation package everybody thought we’d get. And, of course, we didn’t get the compensation package we could’ve gotten six months earlier.”

President Barack Obama (right) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, November 9, 2015. The president and prime minister sought to mend their fractured relationship during their meeting, the first time they have talked face-to-face in more than a year. (AP/Andrew Harnik)
US President Barack Obama (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House, November 9, 2015 (AP/Andrew Harnik)

Although negotiations over the renewal of the US-Israel Memorandum of Understanding — which regulates American military assistance to Israel — have just started, Lapid is convinced that Israel will not receive the increase in aid it hopes for.

“If there was something big to give, then the president [would have already announced that he] is giving it. This is the way things work. If you have something really exciting to give to another country, you keep this for the meeting with the [prime minister]. You don’t let the subordinates give it afterwards,” he said.

Support for Israel is no longer a bipartisan consensus, Lapid further posited, with many pro-Israel Democrats angry over Netanyahu’s Congress speech in which he attacked Obama’s Iran policies.

What is Lapid’s remedy for Israel’s foreign-policy woes? For one, he believes in propping up the country’s hasbara public diplomacy efforts — which need to be concentrated in the Foreign Ministry.

“You don’t have the benefit of choosing your battles when you’re a country like Israel. You have to fight each and every battle,” he said. The alternative — say, boycotting the Belgian foreign minister because he supports labeling — leaves the field open to Israel’s enemies and allows third parties to arrive at the wrong conclusions. “We haven’t been telling our side of the story, constantly, for a long time now. And then we’re surprised if people believe the other side.”

Lapid therefore generally supports Israeli cooperation with fact-finding missions by the UN Human Rights Council or investigations by the International Criminal Court. The Netanyahu government usually boycotts such probes, arguing that they are a foregone conclusion and that cooperating would legitimize a biased process.

Yesh Atid Chair Yair Lapid speaking at Bar Ilan University, 20th September, 2015.
Yair Lapid speaking at Bar-Ilan University, September 2015

On September 20, Lapid delivered a speech at Bar-Ilan University, in which he called for a regional summit based on the Arab Peace Initiative, designed to lead to an agreement with the Palestinians.

“The only path toward peace — and peace is something our children will make, not us — is having an agreement between enemies [providing for] separation,” he said. “The current knife intifada has proven to us — as if we needed further proof — that we need to separate from the Palestinians. I don’t want to say ‘get rid of the Palestinians,’ because that’s too blunt. But we need to separate from the Palestinians and to make sure there’s a higher wall between us — not a smaller wall.”

Lapid’s speech was a direct challenge to Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech, in which the prime minister — for the first time — accepted the two-state solution. But Netanyahu does not really have a strategy on how to reach an agreement that would lead to such an outcome, Lapid charged, accusing the prime minister of “sentencing us to another 100 years of living by the sword, which is not a great legacy for any politician.”

In contrast, Lapid believes he has figured out a surefire way to success. “We need a regional summit that will start a regional process that will end with an agreement of separation from the Palestinians and normalization with the Arab world,” he said. The route to an agreement does not lead through Ramallah but through Cairo and Riyadh, which will then “enable” the Palestinians to be more flexible than they have been in the past.

“I don’t accept the idea that it’s impossible,” he went on. “I will work on it again and again until I make it feasible. I think it is feasible and I’ve been talking to the Arab world now for quite some time and I am telling you that it can happen.”

Lapid’s plan has some similarities to Netanyahu’s stated position on Palestinian statehood. Both men insist that Jerusalem remain undivided under Israeli control and that the Israel Defense Forces will need to retain a long-term presence throughout the West Bank. But there are also sharp differences. Lapid, for instance, rejects Netanyahu’s insistence on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

“My father didn’t come here from the ghetto in order to be recognized by Abu Mazen,” he said, referring to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “We don’t care about Abu Mazen’s recognition. For me, it is anti-Zionist to ask for recognition from the Palestinians, or from the Arabs in general. We got all the recognition we need on November 29, 1947,” the day the UN General Assembly decided to divide British Mandate Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state.

Asked to respond to Netanyahu’s argument that true peace will only come when the Palestinians internalize and verbalize the Jews’ right to sovereignty in this land, Lapid replied, “The only thing the Palestinians should internalize is the size of the guns of the IDF. This is what makes us safe and secure as a Jewish state. This is the only thing I want them to remember, going into this process. The whole idea of independence is that you don’t need recognition from anyone.”

‘Nothing can be compared to the Holocaust, period’

Lapid deems the EU’s labeling initiative “not only evil, but also stupid” — but opposes comparing it to yellow stars or referring to “darker times” when discussing the matter. “Because I hate every comparison to the Holocaust. There is nothing that can be compared to the Holocaust, period.”

However, he took offense with the EU envoy to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, who said last month at a conference that such comparisons are a “distortion of history and a belittlement of the crimes of the Nazis and of the memory of their victims.”

Said Lapid: “I agree with what he said, but I don’t think he has the right to say it. I have the right, because my grandfather died in Mauthausen [concentration camp] and his grandfather didn’t. So I’m allowed and he is not allowed… It’s not the ambassador’s place to tell us what we can or cannot compare to the Holocaust.”

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