Analysis: Lapid: A presentable face to the world?

Lapid backs Ariel, backs Israel's retention of the major settlement blocs, and is opposed to the division of Jerusalem.

Yair Lapid (photo credit: Hadas Parush)
Yair Lapid
(photo credit: Hadas Parush)
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 kingmaker.
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- Liberman.
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 confrontational.
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 capitals.
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 decided.
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 blocs.
“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.