In the half-decade since founding the centrist Yesh Atid party, Yair Lapid has become a force to be reckoned with in the Israeli political world.
After a brief stint as finance minister in 2013-14, the 54-year-old ex-TV anchor has been biding his time in the opposition, waiting for the next opportunity to try to unseat longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
While polls show Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party remain popular among the Israeli public, Lapid has established himself as one of the prime minister’s top potential challengers, whenever the next Knesset election is held (which will be in November 2019, at the latest).
This week, Lapid was in Washington, DC, for a talk at a think tank and meetings with a slew of US legislators. At a sit-down interview with The Algemeiner, Lapid touched on a wide range of issues, including the Iran nuclear deal, Syria, the conflict with the Palestinians, the BDS movement, the Netanyahu-Trump relationship and Israel’s ties with Diaspora Jewry. He also explained his push for American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
The following interview with Lapid has been edited for length and clarity:
Q: On the Israeli political spectrum, what differentiates you from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to your right and Labor leader Avi Gabbay to your left?
A: Our thinking when building Yesh Atid was always that it’s not about left or right anymore, all over the world. It’s about people who are defining themselves with all the ideologies versus people who are looking for pragmatic, practical answers to the questions that surround our lives. This is part of the centrist wave, which includes [Emmanuel] Macron in France, [Mark] Rutte in the Netherlands, and the Ciudadanos in Spain.
On one hand, it’s old-fashioned centrism, and on the other hand, it’s saying we are living in a world that is more and more polarized, and someone needs to take responsibility.
This is what we are trying to do, with a sane, pragmatic voice, redefining and relooking at the issues that are most important, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the economy, and what it means to be Israeli.
Q: Why do you feel Israel needs a leadership change?
A: First of all, it’s very bad for a country, a democracy, not to have a renewal every now and then. I think the Americans are right to have term limits. It’s good for a vibrant democracy. And I think we, as people, run out of ideas over time.
Right now, our biggest problem is we lack a sense of a common goal. And this can only be renewed, or reinvented, by a different leadership than the one we’ve had for too long.
I have a son who was just released from the army, after spending three years in a tank opposite Hezbollah, and he was less than one year old when Bibi Netanyahu was already prime minister. This cannot be a good thing for a country. So I think we need to move forward to an Israel 2.0.
Q: If you become prime minister, what would your top priority be?
A: I would say, A, some sort of rehabilitation of Israeli society, in terms of our ability to talk to each other. And, B, we need to move forward cautiously — very cautiously — on the Palestinian front.
Also, we need a new economic contract. Right now, young people in Israel have no chance of ever owning an apartment. Furthermore, we, like all other Western countries, are totally unprepared for the new world in which machines are now replacing humans.
Q: While you’ve been here in Washington, what has your message been to US legislators you have met with?
A: I’m trying to arrange bipartisan support for American recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Reality has changed. We cannot return the Golan Heights to a mass murderer who just killed half a million of his own people. And the last seven years of civil war in Syria have just proved how important it is for Israel to have the strategic control of the Golan Heights.
The US has never denied our right to the Golan Heights, but it’s been hesitant on the issue since the mid-1970s. Now, I think, there is a point for the Americans to take a small stand, opposite the psychopath, without it being necessary for them to put boots on the ground or go and fight another war in the Middle East.
It’s time for the international community to say, that if there is a choice between a democracy that respects human rights and a crazy dictatorship, that it will side with the democracy.
Q: As an Israeli politician, how do you thread the needle these days when it comes to the Trump administration? On one hand, Trump is very popular in Israel because of his foreign policy, while on the other hand, many US Jews revile him over his domestic agenda and personal behavior.
A: I keep talking with both Democratic and Republican friends of mine about the fact that Israel should go back to being a bipartisan issue. I think Prime Minister Netanyahu has made a mistake by allying himself unilaterally with the Trump administration. I appreciate and cherish the open friendship, and warmth, that President Trump has shown toward Israel, but, remember, it was a Democratic president who first recognized Israel, and we need to stay bipartisan. So we must have more dialogue with Democrats.
And we also must have a much better dialogue with American Jewry, which was insulted once and again by this government with the cancellation of the Kotel [egalitarian prayer] framework, as well as [the advancement of] the conversion bill. Also, the minister of religion came to the Knesset podium and said Reform Jews are not really Jewish and the prime minister said nothing about it. He should have said we will not accept this and you have to be more respectful.
I’ve said a few times now that Israel cannot be the only Western country in which Jews do not have freedom of religion. So we need to pass the Kotel framework, make sure the conversion bill includes Reform and Conservative Jews, and open a new page in this relationship. This is part of the kind of change Israel needs.
Q: Do you think the Trump administration’s effort to renew the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will go anywhere?
A: I think they have one advantage on their side, which is the fact that the Netanyahu government is in no position to say no to the Trump administration. They’re probably going to present a paper that, I don’t know if favorable, but can at least be digested by Israel. The problem Netanyahu has is that he cannot say no to President Trump, but his base is not going to like that. However, the Palestinians might save him the trouble. So it’s going to be interesting to watch, but we have to see what’s in the paper before we can know what will happen.
Q: Following the recent US withdrawal from the JCPOA, what are the next steps Israel should take on the Iran nuclear issue?
A: I think what we need now is a joint American-Israeli effort to get the Europeans on board. If we get the Europeans on board, then together with them we can press the Chinese and the Russians.
While there is some bitterness among the Europeans over the way the withdrawal happened, I think it would be smart to try to get them involved, and I believe this can be done, if it’s handled the right way. Sanctions worked before the JCPOA because the entire international community was involved. So there is a formula that is useful, and we have to try to get back to it.
Q: Do you support how Prime Minister Netanyahu has managing the Syria situation?
A: Yes, totally. There are several basic principles that are shared by a majority of Israelis, coalition and opposition alike. One is we will not tolerate an Iranian presence in Syria. We can’t have the Iranians putting boots on the ground in Syria and working with Hezbollah. Secondly, we need to have Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights recognized. And, as another thing, we have said many times we will do everything in our power to make sure advanced weapons are not moving from Iran, through Syria, toward Lebanon.
Q: You were in the cabinet during the last Gaza war, four years ago, and it seems like nothing has changed there since then. What can be done to bring about a different situation?
A: After that operation, I was still a cabinet minister, and I said we needed to start working on a strategy for the rehabilitation of Gaza and the disarmament of Gaza. We could have, and we should have, passed a UN Security Council resolution about this. Rule number one in fighting terrorism is making sure there is a barrier between the terror organization and the people the terror organization has evolved from. It’s in Israel’s best interest that there will be electricity, clean water, medicine, food, and employment in Gaza.
There are great plans for how to do this without helping Hamas. There is a plan that’s been discussed in the last few days in the cabinet, which was originally a plan put forth by Ram Ben-Barak, a Yesh Atid member who used to be deputy head of Mossad, to use some piers in Cyprus to create a harbor for Gaza. And there’s another plan by Minister [Yoav] Gallant talking about an industrial park in the northern part of Gaza. There are many plans like this. So we need to work on this on one hand and fight Hamas on the other.
We must set goals. And the goal of the disarmament of Gaza is not going to happen in a day, but at least it’s a policy, which this government is lacking.
Q: Do you view the BDS movement as a real threat to Israel and how do you think it can be countered?
A: First of all, yes, I think it’s a real threat. Israel made the mistake of ignoring it for a decade and then we woke up one day and realized, for example in this country, that on campuses — like Berkeley, and Columbia sometimes — BDS has become the bons temps.
We can win this war if we’ll be professional enough running it. It has to be within the Foreign Ministry, we have to have a foreign minister. And it has to be well-organized and well-orchestrated by the government, which is not happening right now.
The minister in charge of fighting BDS, Minister [Gilad] Erdan, is also the minister of police. He’s probably the busiest person in the government. Right now, he’s expected to simultaneously be in charge of the prime minister’s investigations, security on the Temple Mount, and something someone is saying or doing in Berkeley, California. This is not the right way to run things.
We have to be able to tell our story. The high-tech, start-up nation must win the war on social media. We are fighting Palestinians who are using fake news against us.
Q: There is a common talking point out there that the Israeli public has moved irrevocably to the right in recent years. If this is true, how are you, as a centrist, going to draw the support of rightist voters?
A: A few months ago, I was leading in the polls, and votes from the right were coming my way. And the reason is, as I was saying, it’s not about right and left anymore. This is the kind of message I’m trying to transfer to the people.
And besides, I have to disagree to some extent with the premise. People say Israel is going to the right, but when you poll it, for example, there is still a majority of Israelis who support the two-state solution. And if you talk to Israelis on the street, and ask them if they want to live in a country that does not have the basic components of a welfare state, they’ll say no, they want those things, like the public health care system. Israel is not a socialist country, but it’s not as capitalist as the US is. So I’d say these are just definitions that have to do with the politics of identity, more than real tangible views held by the people.
(c) 2018 The Algemeiner Journal