by Michael Arnold and Jonathan Ferziger
The Israeli politician with the best chance of unseating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he’s encouraged by President Donald Trump’s early efforts to resurrect peace negotiations with the Palestinians — even if he’s not convinced they’ll succeed.
The fact that the new U.S. president “wants to be proactive, that after a long time when nothing happens somebody’s trying to push some sort of an envelope, is a good sign,” Yair Lapid, head of the opposition party Yesh Atid, said in an interview on the eve of Trump’s May 22 trip to Israel. “Not doing anything is also a choice — and usually a bad one.”
Polls show Lapid running neck-and-neck with Netanyahu if elections were held today. The former television talk-show host served for almost two years as Netanyahu’s finance minister until his firing in December 2014 led to the collapse of the previous government. That precipitated new elections that returned Netanyahu to power with a more conservative coalition.
Now Lapid, 53, predicts the government will last just another few months. While he wouldn’t comment on the various investigations into the prime minister — who’s accused of receiving gifts from foreign tycoons and conspiring to help a newspaper publisher in exchange for favorable coverage — Lapid says he expects the current government to last only through the end of the year. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.
“I don’t see a lot of juice in this government,” Lapid said. “Our assumption is the government will hold until the end of the year, and not longer.”
The son of a Holocaust survivor who became one of Israel’s foremost journalists, Lapid has made no secret of his aspirations to lead the country. On his wall, not far from a poster of Muhammad Ali — Lapid is an amateur boxer who works out six days a week — are photographs of two iconic Israeli prime ministers who were ideological opposites. Lapid says he can fill the space in the center between Labor Party stalwart David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, who founded the conservative Likud Party.
Unlike many Israeli leadership contenders, Lapid doesn’t have a distinguished military record to fall back on: He was a correspondent for the Israeli army’s weekly magazine, Bamahane. Since entering the opposition, though, he has sought to position himself as a tough-minded centrist, one who’s interested in reaching an accommodation with the Palestinians but won’t negotiate everything away to do so.
Trump has given mixed signals about the specific steps he thinks are needed to achieve Middle East peace. During a news conference with Netanyahu in February, Trump said he would be willing to support a one-state or two-state solution, whatever “both parties like.” Either way, he’s said, he’s a leader who can finally get a peace deal done.
Not So Tough
Following a May 3 meeting with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, Trump went so far as to say that a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians “is frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”
Ahead of Trump’s Middle East trip, Lapid said in the interview that the new president should follow through on his campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in recognition of Israel’s claim to the city. The Palestinians want the eastern part of the city, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast War, to be their future capital, and have threatened violence if the U.S. moves its embassy.
“No one would ask America to give up half of Washington, the French to give up half of Paris. So we’re not going to give anything in Jerusalem, and this is where the embassy should be,” Lapid said. “There might be upheaval for a day or two, but neither Israel nor the United States is making policy according to threats.”
Lapid long has advocated a regional peace conference, an idea Netanyahu also favors. Shared fears of a nuclear-armed Iran have created potential common ground between Israel and Sunni Arab states in the region, and the Arab League recently reiterated its support for a 2002 Saudi-sponsored plan that would offer Israel peace with the wider Muslim world if it resolves its conflict with the Palestinians. If he were prime minister, Lapid says, the first thing he would do is convene an international peace conference with the participation of moderate Arab states.
While the Trump administration is still getting its bearings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the new U.S. ambassador to Israel, attorney David Friedman, only arrived in the country Monday — the president has appeared to walk back some of his most pro-Israel campaign statements. The embassy move, in particular, appears to be a much lower priority. During their joint news conference, Trump gently chided Netanyahu to “hold back” on settlement construction.
Bottom of Form
Yet even that was a change from the Obama administration, which fiercely criticized all Israeli settlement building, including in Jerusalem and in large settlement blocs that Israel expects to keep in any peace agreement. In a way, Lapid said, it hearkens back to understandings between President George W. Bush and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, codified in a 2004 exchange of letters that recognized facts on the ground Israel had established in the decades since 1967.
Under Trump, “we see something less ideological, a more practical approach to the conflict. Maybe that’s a good thing,” Lapid said. “Ninety-five percent of the problems on Earth are practical problems, and need practical solutions.”