A few short weeks ago, Yair Lapid would not have been anticipating that he would be hosting US President Joe Biden on this week’s visit. A few short months from now, elections could either confirm him as a full-term prime minister or put an end to his tenure as caretaker.
So at their joint press conference in Jerusalem on Thursday afternoon, with Biden alongside him, Lapid used his guaranteed moment in the global spotlight to make his mark — setting out a vision for Israel and its regional relations that differed in tone and substance from that of his two recent predecessors, and that also challenged his guest.
Where his recent predecessor Naftali Bennett was wary and circumspect, Lapid was blunt in condemning Russia’s “unjustified invasion of Ukraine.”
Where his presidential visitor indicated he was prepared to wait longer to see if Iran will cut a deal on its nuclear program, declaring “diplomacy is the best way,” Lapid was adamant that “diplomacy will not stop them.” Politely but directly confronting Biden’s approach, he insisted, “The only way to stop them is to put a credible military threat on the table.” Recalling Biden’s own comments, he noted: “You have said many times, Mr. President, that ‘big countries do not bluff.’ I completely agree. It should not be a bluff, but the real thing.”
And where his November 1 election rival, opposition leader and veteran former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ceased to endorse a two-state solution for the Palestinians, Lapid adamantly and firmly declared, “A two-state solution is a guarantee for a strong, democratic State of Israel with a Jewish majority.”
In his prepared remarks and in the Q&A section of their joint appearance, Lapid sought to stress Israel’s ability and readiness to defend itself against all enemy threats, while also highlighting a profound desire to build peaceful relations with those in the region willing to normalize ties.
This was a message plainly aimed at and shared by Biden, who has stressed the “ironclad” US security support for Israel and his determination to work for Israel’s “complete integration” into the region.
It was also clearly meant to be heard by new potential regional partners: “Mr. President, you will meet with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Iraq,” Lapid noted. “I would like you to pass them all a message from us: Our hand is outstretched for peace. We are ready to share our technology and experience, ready for our people to meet and learn about one another, ready for our scientists to collaborate and our businesses to cooperate.”
But most of all, it was a message directed at Israel’s electorate. Recalling his father’s Holocaust experiences, quoting from Psalms, highlighting Israel’s military might, its achievements, and its desire for peace with its neighbors, Lapid was hoping to move the political dial. Hoping, that is, to shift a small slice of the demographic in his favor and break Israel’s electoral deadlock.
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