Israel would be in a better position to improve the impending nuclear deal between Tehran and the West if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had not harmed relations with the US, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
“If things were as they used to be in the relationship between Israel and the United States, we would be able to make some impact and change this deal for the better of Israel,” Lapid said in an interview for the Jerusalem Post Election Arena, available in full on JPost.com.
Ties between the prime minister and US President Barack Obama, which have never been warm, hit a nadir when Netanyahu accepted an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, to address a joint session of Congress on the Iran issue. The White House was not consulted, and the speech was seen as a move to undermine the negotiations.
Asked how Israel should handle the prospect of a nuclear agreement, Lapid said, “You should do it quietly, not poking the United States president in the chest.” Because of the speech, an Iran sanctions bill sponsored by Sens. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) lost bipartisan support. The administration and its European partners had warned that passage of such a bill would collapse negotiations altogether.
Yet Lapid threw his support behind the now-defunct sanctions bill, saying that it was “everything we hoped for,” because it put “extra sanctions on Iran in the right moment.”
“If not for this speech, the Kirk-Menendez bill would have been served to the Congress, and even if it was vetoed by the president, I think Israel with AIPAC would have been able, along with our friends on the Hill, to even overthrow a veto, getting two-thirds of the votes,” Lapid said.
Though Lapid would not explicitly say whether the brewing deal was good or bad, saying there was no longer sufficient information sharing as a result of the prime minister’s planned speech, he did note: “We think that there are too many centrifuges still there, and this is not harsh enough or strong enough toward the Iranians.”
Lapid, whose 19-seat party is the second largest in the outgoing Knesset, has been struggling to keep that level of support. In the last JPost/Maariv Poll, Yesh Atid came in at 12 seats, which he said is because “we were working too hard and didn’t take the time to notify people what it is that we’re doing.”
Lest he face challenges from within his party, Lapid said the he was against initiating a democratic primary for Yesh Atid.
“In Israel it has become the source for all political evil,” he said, citing irregularities in the recent Likud primary. “This has become a very corrupt process, and we’re going to go with the Ben-Gurion solution of getting together and deciding who” will be on the candidates list, he said.
Though Lapid would be “happy” to return to the Finance Ministry, he said, “I don’t know if it’s my top choice.”
As finance minister, Lapid received far-reaching criticism for his policies, most notably the plan to exempt some young couples from VAT in new home purchases. The Finance Ministry chief economist quit in protest, the Bank of Israel opposed it, and many of the country’s top economists said it would be of little help to young couples and raise home prices for everyone else.
Asked why he pushed the program despite the broad opposition from experts, Lapid responded, “It’s the right thing to do. It may not be economical, but it’s the right thing to do.”
The 0 VAT plan, he reiterated, was not the center of the housing program, but only a portion of a wider set of policies. Yet he said he would pursue it following the election. “If you want to do stuff, you have to be able to handle controversy,” he added.
Asked why his housing plans were better than those of rivals Moshe Kahlon from Koolanu, who wants to break up the Israel Lands Authority, or Manuel Trajtenberg from the Zionist Union, who wants to give developers free land in exchange for building affordable housing, Lapid simply said, “They have plans and ideas. We have a solid, ongoing project.”
Though Yesh Atid’s central economic platform is simply passing the 2015 state budget, plus a few new plans to fight corruption and nationalize KKL-JNF, Lapid said he was evolving on the issue of recreational marijuana.
“I’ve changed my mind a bit about this, because I was all against legalization of marijuana and cannabis in Israel, but as we speak there is the biggest experiment in world history,” he said, referring to the legalization of recreational pot use in Washington and Colorado in the US.
“Let’s see what happens there and I’ll tell you again when they say we have the safe first result of the first year. If things will look better, I’m always willing to change my mind if presented with new facts,” he said. He was already in favor of medical marijuana use, he said.
On another hot-button social issue, gay marriage, Lapid explained his vote against a Labor-sponsored bill that would have allowed same-sex civil marriage.
“There was one bill that we thought was very – I want to be polite, so I’ll say unprofessional.
That said we would have a specific kind of marriage for gay couples. Maybe from the best intentions, this creates a situation where gay couples become second rate citizens,” he said.
“So I’m all for gay marriage as part of civil marriage, but I don’t think it should be a separate kind of marriage, because it’s marriage like [for] every other couple,” he said.