A couple hours after the first exit polls on Tuesday night indicated a Likud
Beytenu meltdown, Channel 2 sarcastically asked Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe
Ya’alon about the party’s central campaign message: A vote for the party sends a
strong message to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hezbollah’s Hassan
Nasrallah and Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal.
“What are those three leaders
thinking now?” Ya’alon was asked.
Without missing a beat Ya’alon replied:
“They are asking themselves, ‘Who is Yair Lapid?’” Indeed.
And they are
not the only ones. It’s a safe bet the name “Yair Lapid” was one of the most
popular searches on Google on Wednesday in capitals around the globe, as
policymakers in friendly countries – as well as hostile ones – scrambled to
learn about this new Israeli “flavor of the month” turned
Friendly countries, at least, will probably be relieved by
what their computer-based research come up with: On diplomatic/security issues
Lapid is no hawk. He is a pragmatic moderate to the left of Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu and his party who is very much representative of the Israeli
middle and sensitive to the need for international support.
Many are the
coalition configurations currently being bandied about, and many are the names
being put forward as key ministers as well. In any coalition, Lapid – as head of
the Knesset’s second-biggest party – will likely be offered one of the following
major ministries: foreign, finance or education.
If he takes the Foreign
Ministry, the world – which dealt (or didn’t deal) with Avigdor Liberman over
the past four years – will probably get mild whiplash: Lapid is the anti-
First of all, unlike Liberman he does not discount peace talks
with the Palestinians as a waste of time, saying before the elections that he
would only join a government that promotes them.
Second, his style is
dramatically different – less strident, less combative, less
Hard to imagine Lapid castigating the Europeans in the
same manner that Liberman did over the past few months, telling a room full of
diplomats in December, for instance, that many world leaders would be willing to
“sacrifice Israel in an instant.”
As foreign minister, one assumes Lapid
would be, well, more diplomatic. Israel always looks for a pleasant face it can
show the world, a function now filled by President Shimon Peres, and Lapid seems
to be a good fit for the role: moderate, attractive, comfortable and easily
understandable in English, urbane, charismatic – someone who would be welcome in foreign
Lapid can play both those roles – a likable face to the world
and an influential voice on foreign/security policy – even if he is not
appointed foreign minister.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, for instance,
served Netanyahu recently as the prime minister’s liaison to Washington because
he was welcome and well respected there while Liberman was not. And regardless
of what ministry Lapid chooses, he will surely be a member of the security
cabinet, where the major diplomatic/ security issues are discussed and
Those searching the Web, however, should not be fooled by
Lapid’s moderation. While no hawk, he is not Meretz either. In October he said
that Israel “must get rid of the Palestinians and put a fence between us,”
adding that “there will be no ‘new Middle East,’ but at least there will not be
three million Palestinians in Israeli territory.”
Lapid also chose in
October to give a foreign policy speech in Ariel, doing so to both distance
himself from the Left and illustrate his support for the settlement
“There is no map on which Ariel is not a part of the State of
Israel,” he said. “You don’t come to negotiations only with an olive branch, the
way the Left does, or only with a gun, the way the Right does. You come to find
a solution. We’re not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but
for a divorce agreement we can live with.”
Lapid backs Ariel, supports
Israel’s retention of the major settlement blocs and is opposed to the division
of Jerusalem, saying the capital represents the country’s ethos, the reason the
Jewish people is here – again, positions that place him very much in the heart
of the Israeli consensus.
The catch is that the world does not support
those positions. The heat being directed at Israel from around the world over
the past few months is over building and plans for building in the major
settlement blocs and Jerusalem, positions Lapid supports. Even if Lapid becomes
the face of those positions, the world is unlikely to support them.
Nevertheless, he might be able to make those positions, or the reasons behind
them, more palatable, understandable and less threatening to the world than has
been the case over the past four years.
On Tuesday, the day of our
elections and the day after US President Barack Obama was inaugurated, The
Washington Post wrote an editorial calling for a reset in the turbulent ties
between Obama and Netanyahu. A government with Lapid in a central role, both
influencing policy and presenting it, will make that possibility more likely –
and not only in Washington.