Lapid on Jerusalem: 'It’s ours. I don’t want to divide it'

Lapid says he would never negotiate over Jerusalem, even if it means no peace

Yesh Atid leader slams prime minister for ruining Israel’s international relations but concedes he wouldn’t have done anything dramatically different

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

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks at a meeting in the Knesset on December 25, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks at a meeting in the Knesset on December 25, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid said Monday that if he were elected  prime minister he would not negotiate over the status of Jerusalem, even if that meant there would never be peace with the Palestinians.

“I am not willing to conduct negotiations over Jerusalem. It’s ours. I don’t want to divide it. And if there’s no peace because of this, let there be no peace because of this,” Lapid told reporters during a lengthy briefing.

In future peace talks, Israel will have to make painful concessions, he added, arguing that in order to retain all of Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs, Israel will need to be ready to give up isolated settlements.

US President Donald Trump’s December 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital sparked widespread protests across the Arab and Muslim world and led the Palestinian Authority to declare that the US would no longer be regarded as a broker in any future peace talks, not would it consider any upcoming US-backed peace plan.

In his address, Trump defied worldwide warnings and insisted that after repeated failures to achieve peace, a new approach was long overdue. He described his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the seat of Israel’s government as merely based on reality.

The move was hailed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by leaders across much of the Israeli political spectrum, but derided by the Palestinians and wider Arab and Muslim world. Trump stressed that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city, and called for no change in the status quo at the city’s holy sites.

In response, the Palestinian leadership in both the West Bank and Gaza called for “days of rage” and urged confrontations with Israeli troops.

Israel took control East Jerusalem in the 1967’s Six Day War and later annexed it, in a move never recognized by the international community.

Palestinians view Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and interpreted Trump’s statement as rejecting their right to a capital in East Jerusalem, although the Americans deny this.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid chairs a faction meeting at the Knesset on December 25, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Diplomatic renaissance

Lapid, speaking to Israel’s Diplomatic Correspondents Association in the Yesh Atid party faction room, went to great lengths to challenge Netanyahu’s oft-repeated assertion that Israel is undergoing an unprecedented flourishing of its diplomatic relations.

“There is no diplomatic renaissance,” Lapid said at the beginning of the briefing, launching a scathing attack on Netanyahu’s foreign policies, including accusing the prime minister of disrespecting French President Emmanuel Macron and saying he would pressure Russia into considering Israeli interests in Syria.

While noting that Israel’s “situation is excellent,” Lapid argued that Netanyahu’s policies led to deteriorating ties with the European Union, China, Russia and other important players, including half of the American body politic.

The election of US President Donald Trump “is certainly a miracle that happened to the people of Israel and to Netanyahu,” he said. “His support is really special, he goes with the Israeli narrative, and it’s about time that happened.”

However, due to the prime minister’s policies, Israel is losing support not only among Democrats, including formerly staunch supporters such as Chuck Schumer, Elliot Angel and Jerome Nadler, but also among young Evangelicals and most American Jews.

“In the upcoming midterm elections, the Democrats will likely win, and we will be in trouble,” Lapid said.

In Europe, too, Israel was losing popularity, Lapid posited, citing Netanyahu telling Macron that he should read the Bible to find out about the Jewish people’s connection to Jerusalem.

“Macron studied in a Jesuit school, I am willing to bet he knows the Bible better than Netanyahu,” he said, accusing the prime minister of “arrogance.”

Regarding Russia, Lapid argued that Israel failed to get President Vladimir Putin to prevent an Iranian military presence in the war-torn Syria.

“This could’ve been managed much better,” he said. If he were prime minister, he added, he would have told the Russian leader that if he is interested in a stable regime for Syrian President Bashar Assad, he will have to take Israel’s security interests into account.

While stressing that he is not threatening “war,” Lapid indicated that he would have clearly implied that Israel would be ready to act militarily against Syrian targets if  Jerusalem’s requirements were not fully met.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi visit the water desalination plant at Olga beach on July 6, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

Lapid acknowledged that Israel has improved relations with certain countries — such as India — but maintained that Israel’s overall situation is on a downward trajectory.

“I never said that Israel’s situation is horrible, but we’re in a much worse place than we could be in,” he said. “The country is in an excellent situation, but that doesn’t contradict my assertion that a bad policy is in place.”

Asked what he would do differently, he replied that there is “no one dramatic thing” he would do, but work on improving ties with Democrats and US Jews — which he called “crucial for our security” — and appoint a full-time foreign minister. Netanyahu has held the position since the new government was formed in 2015.

“The Foreign Ministry is one of the three important ministries, and it has been vacant for three years now,” he said.

“I’m not a magician,” he added. “But you can’t improve foreign policy if no one is doing the work, with the prime minister only flying around the world and taking photos.”

Legal woes

Lapid also predicted that Netanyahu will be investigated as part of a probe into alleged widespread corruption surrounding a deal to purchase submarines from Germany, adding that the Likud party’s effort to pass a law preventing the police from recommending indictments of public officials was because it knew the prime minister would eventually be roped in.

The purchase of the Dolphin-class submarines, costing a total of 2 billion euros, has been mired in controversy since it came to light that a close ally of Netanyahu was representing the German company that manufactures them. A probe, dubbed Case 3000, led to an ever-expanding investigation that has seen several senior officials arrested and questioned by police. Police have specifically said Netanyahu is not a suspect in the case.

“There is no way in the world in which the prime minister is not investigated,” he said. “They’re fighting for the recommendations law because they know he will be investigated in the submarines issue.”

The so-called police recommendations bill, which would bar police from recommending indictment in corruption investigations against public figures, was approved earlier this month by the Knesset’s Internal Affairs Committee, allowing the legislation to proceed to a final plenary vote.

“If he knew that people close to him got money for helping clinch the deals, he should not be prime minister and go to jail for a long time,” Lapid said. “And if he didn’t know, then he should not be prime minister anymore because he doesn’t what’s going on around him. And that’s dangerous to our national security.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on December 24, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s outgoing diplomatic envoy Yitzhak Molcho and his legal partner David Shimron, Netanyahu’s cousin and personal attorney, were questioned recently for their alleged involvement in Case 3000.

Investigators suspect that state officials were paid bribes to influence a decision to buy submarines and patrol boats from German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp, despite opposition from the Defense Ministry.

Police suspect that Molcho tried to push the submarine deal during his diplomatic trips abroad, while Shimron sought to promote the interests of the German shipbuilders within Israel.

Netanyahu is not a suspect in the case, though many of his political opponents have called on the police to probe him as well.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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