Right move, wrong way: Lapid pans US pullout from Afghanistan

Foreign minister also opens rift with Washington over its plans to reestablish de facto mission for Palestinians in capital, warning it could destabilize government

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid heads a Yesh Atid faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on August 2, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid heads a Yesh Atid faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on August 2, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid criticized the US pullout from Afghanistan Wednesday, and pushed back against a decision to reopen a US consulate in Jerusalem, prying open a rift with Washington just days after the two countries put improved ties on display.

Lapid told reporters that the decision by US President Joe Biden to pull troops out of Afghanistan and end a 20-year war in the country was likely the correct move, but suggested it was executed poorly.

“I think the entire globe was concerned, and first and foremost the Americans themselves [about the way the withdrawal played out]. It didn’t happen the way it was supposed to happen,” Lapid told foreign media during a briefing in Jerusalem.

“It was probably the right decision maybe that wasn’t performed in the right manner.”

The US has been slammed over chaotic scenes as thousands of Afghans tried to get onto evacuation flights after the Taliban rapidly seized control of the country. The last US military flight out left Tuesday. Many foreign nationals, as well as Afghans who assisted Western powers over the past 20 years, were reportedly left behind amid fears they could be targeted by the vengeful Taliban.

“I don’t think we yet understand completely all the consequences of this move, of this retreat… I think we should wait a little before we jump to conclusions” about its effect on the region, Lapid said.

US President Joe Biden speaks about the end of the war in Afghanistan from the State Dining Room of the White House, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

He suggested people listen to a speech from Biden Tuesday in which the US president defended the “wise decision” to leave Afghanistan, telling Americans he refuses to send another generation to fight in a “forever war.”

Israeli officials have reportedly expressed criticism of the Kabul pullout fiasco, but have been careful not to speak out publicly for fear of upending attempts to renew ties between Jerusalem and Washington Democrats.

Lapid also aimed fire at the administration’s plan to reopen the US Consulate General in Jerusalem, warning that restoring the de facto mission to Palestinians could tear apart Israel’s fragile coalition government.

“We think it’s a bad idea and we’ve told America we think it’s a bad idea,” Lapid said.

Former US president Donald Trump moved to close the consulate in 2019 and integrate it with the embassy that had been moved to Jerusalem, describing it as an efficiency measure.

Much of the staff at the historic mission on Agron Street have continued doing the same jobs at the same location, though under a newly named Palestinian Affairs Unit formed under the larger umbrella of US relations to Israel. The move was considered a de facto downgrading of ties, and Biden has expressed support for reversing the closure.

The issue has become a rare point of contention between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government and the Biden administration, threatening to damage efforts to tighten ties.

US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on August 27, 2021. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP)

Lapid said the reopening “will send the wrong message, not only to the region, not only to the Palestinians, but also to other countries, and we don’t want this to happen.”

“And besides, we have an interesting yet delicate structure of our government and we think this might destabilize this government and I don’t think the American administration wants this to happen,” added the foreign minister.

In a statement responding to Lapid’s remarks, the US Embassy in Israel said, “the US will be moving forward with the process to reopen our consulate in Jerusalem.”

The Biden administration announced its plan to reopen the consulate in May, but agreed to hold off on the move until after Bennett’s government passes a budget in November in order to prevent the destabilization of the nascent coalition, according to Israeli officials.

The United States Consulate General building in Jerusalem, March 4, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Biden officials have pointed to Bennett and Lapid’s diverse coalition of right, left and centrist parties as a model of bipartisanship. But the coalition’s exceedingly slim majority has also made it difficult for the government to enact wide-ranging legislation and left it prone to being brought down by a single divisive issue.

Lapid’s comments came days after Bennett returned from a trip to Washington to meet Biden. Lapid had praised the meeting as successfully building ties between the allies.

Biden raised the issue of the consulate with Bennett during their meeting and made clear that he still plans to reopen the mission, a US official said after the summit.

Asked about the matter during an interview with The New York Times earlier this week, Bennett went the furthest he’s gone to publicly oppose the effort. “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It’s not the capital of other nations,” he said.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report

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