On March 27, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid made history. Arab foreign ministers from Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt landed their private jets at the Nevatim Air Force Base in the Negev to participate in an unprecedented regional summit, attended by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The prudently chosen location was a luxurious hotel resort outside Sde Boker, a dry and sandy kibbutz famous for serving as the retirement home and final resting place of Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion.
That evening, the six foreign ministers gathered in a private room for a casual dinner. Ties were taken off but jackets remained on for the beginning, as the diplomats slid into their chairs along the round table.
Lapid was seated between Blinken and his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita. Before entering the room, Lapid told his staff not to interrupt and not to bother him. This was a unique opportunity to build an intimate relationship with some of Israel’s most important regional partners. If someone was going to enter the room it would have to be really important.
No one in the room knew, but as dinner began, two Israeli-Arab terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State walked down a street in Hadera and began spraying gunfire in all directions. Two Border Police officers were killed and 12 others were injured, before an off-duty elite policeman, dining at a nearby restaurant, killed the terrorists.
Suddenly, the door opened and Lapid saw Yael Bar, his head of communications, standing outside. Right away, he could tell something had happened. “You must step outside,” Bar told the foreign minister.
Heading into the hallway, Lapid received an immediate update about the attack. He had a moment to collect his thoughts as he walked back into the dining room, knowing this was the moment that could make or break the summit.
“There was a terrorist attack,” Lapid told the foreign ministers, who later said that they could tell right away that something bad had happened by the way he looked. “I don’t have the details, but I’ll tell you one thing: if we do not condemn it together, now, this summit is over since it would then become just a façade.”
“I don’t have the details, but I’ll tell you one thing: if we do not condemn it together, now, this summit is over since it would then become just a façade.”Foreign Minister Yair Lapid
There was a moment of silence as the group – four of them from Arab countries – digested what they had just heard. Lapid knew this was a moment of truth; all it would take to break the summit would be for one of the ministers to say he needed to call back home first to consult.
The first to speak was Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. “Of course,” he said, adding that his country and the rest around the table always condemned terrorist attacks against civilians. Lapid knew then the summit could succeed.
Lapid then asked the group if there was agreement with him leaving the room once again to issue a statement condemning the attack in everyone’s name to the media. The group approved and instructed him to word the statement as he saw fit.
It was that moment, Lapid recalled in an interview with The Jerusalem Post this week, that he knew something had changed in the Middle East.
“I knew this was really something else, something different, new and tangible,” he said.
THE MEETING with Lapid took place in his Knesset office. On one wall are pictures from his meetings with leaders from across the globe. There he is leaning over on a sofa consulting with then president Bill Clinton; he is hugging Emmanuel Macron at the entrance to the Élysée Palace; posing for a photo with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson; sitting – back when masks were still needed – with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi; and shaking hands with President Joe Biden in the White House, back when he served as vice president.
On the adjacent wall is a framed photo of Lapid hugging his wife Lihi. The couple married in 1990 and have two children, a son and a daughter, Yael, who they have been open about having autism, as well as their struggle as parents. Just last week, he teared up in the cabinet when the ministers discussed a bill aimed at approving the allocation of NIS 2 billion for people with disabilities.
“This is the most important thing you’ll ever do,” Lapid impassioned to his fellow ministers about the proposed legislation.
It has been a rare moment to see the emotional side of Lapid over the last year and since the formation of this government. Often, it just seems like there isn’t time.
A fixture of Israel for decades as a journalist and TV anchor, Lapid entered politics exactly a decade ago, establishing the Yesh Atid party and winning 19 seats in the 2013 election. It was then when his partnership with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was first formed. After the 2013 election, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t want to bring Bennett’s Jewish Home party into his coalition. Lapid and Bennett formed what became known as the Bond of Brothers, forcing Netanyahu to take both and not just one.
In the 10 years since, his political career has seen its ups and downs. But at the same time, Yesh Atid has established itself as the second largest party in the Knesset and the one potential contender against Netanyahu for the top slot.
Lapid admits that the last year has not been simple. Serving as foreign minister at the same time as being the person responsible for the government’s survival – it was he, not Naftali Bennett, who was tapped by the president last year to form the coalition – has been, he said, like having 1,000 balls up in the air at once, constantly and all the time. The added challenge, he continued, is that the work never ends.
“Let me remind you what people tend to forget,” Lapid said during the interview, held in perfect English. “I got the mandate from the president to form this government and so I’m formally in charge of helping it exist. The prime minister and I have an arrangement that works very well for us [including] who’s dealing with what, as well as coalition maintenance, even though he’s working harder on this in the last few weeks because he’s got problems in his own party.”
And problems abound. In the last few weeks, there has barely been a day that the opposition, the media and even members of the coalition have not eulogized this government, currently hanging by what seems like a thread, with just 60 members.
Even those 60 MKs are not locked-in completely. Bennett is dealing with a shake-up in his office, as well as the constant fear that additional coalition members from the Yamina Party may jump ship straight into the hands of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and give him the keys to a new government.
All of this forces Lapid to be something like a coalition whisperer. When Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi announced two weeks ago that she was leaving the government, it wasn’t Bennett who met with her to try and salvage the government, but Lapid. When Blue and White MK Michael Biton announced that he would no longer vote with the coalition, Lapid had to step in again. When there are problems with Ra’am and its leader MK Mansour Abbas, it is Lapid who is called to the plate.
“Every week I come in here with people who are telling me this is over and I say, wow, that is really sad. And then we win each and every vote, or almost each and every vote – not without agony, not without some pain in the room, but it’s okay,” he explained.
When speaking to Yesh Atid members and his office staff, there is a feeling that they share a common purpose and sense of loyalty – to the party, its leader, the coalition and the country. I asked Lapid why it is that Bennett’s office and party always look like they are falling apart, while in his own office and his own party, the mood is completely different.
“I have an organization around me that was created for the purpose of governing and it was created like this a long, long time ago,” he explained. “At the beginning, Yesh Atid was formed with the vision of governing, since we always knew that the center is where the majority of Israelis are and we realized if we can create a centrist party that will express this view it will become the governing party. This is not the case with Yamina. So, I don’t think Naftali Bennett is less talented than I am and I think that he is at least as smart. And therefore, if he had the time, he probably would have an organization that is as efficient, but he didn’t have the time.”
This defense of Bennett was apparent throughout the interview. On a number of occasions, Lapid could have criticized the current prime minister, the person who – according to some media reports – he is vying with right now to see who will serve as prime minister if the coalition falls apart.
According to their agreement signed last June, if the MK who brings down the coalition comes from Lapid’s camp, Bennett remains prime minister during the interim election period and if the MK comes from Bennett’s right-wing faction within the government, then Lapid switches him in the Prime Minister’s Office.
But if there is anything that has been the trademark of this government, it is the participation of an Israeli-Arab party in the coalition for the first time in Israeli history. Lapid believes strongly in the partnership with Ra’am and Abbas, who he calls a friend and someone who is a real thinker.
Asked how it is that after a year of showing the country what a Jewish-Arab partnership looks like, 70% of Israelis – including a significant number of Arabs – do not want to see an Arab party in a future coalition, Lapid explained that Israel is still in the middle of a process.
“We have changed something fundamental in the way Israel looks at coexistence and it’s a process. I think it’s going to succeed. I think we are doing well considering the amount of obituaries about myself and this government I read. But I understand this as a process,” he said.
This government, he explained, made a decision not to ignore the fact that 20% of Israelis are Arabs and they have needs. “And therefore, it’s the right thing to have them inside the government. But it takes getting used to and this is what we’re doing,” he said.
He also defends his decisions lately to occasionally rely on the Joint List – an Arab party in the opposition – to help win some votes in the Knesset, a move that has been decried by Netanyahu and the Likud as a betrayal of Jewish and Zionist ideals that could lead to Israel’s downfall.
“How can it be a destruction if you have a functioning government which did so well in this past year in terms of changing the lives of Israeli citizens for the better,” Lapid asked. “We have done everything from tuition for soldiers, assistance for Holocaust survivors, help for small businesses and providing for the needs of the elderly. This government is doing a whole world of good. Now, the fact that the opposition is yelling and shouting is what they’re supposed to do. If you ask me if I like this style, I hate this style. If you ask me if they’re polarizing this country to a dangerous level for political reasons, the answer is yes.”
LAST WEEK, a Jerusalem Post poll surveyed Israelis on three different scenarios ahead of the possibility that a new election is on the horizon. In all three scenarios the numbers fluctuated for almost all the parties, except one: Yesh Atid. In all three scenarios, including one in which Itamar Ben-Gvir runs on his own and receives six seats, Yesh Atid consistently receives the same number of seats, 20.
For Lapid, who calls himself a “middle guy,” this reinforces a feeling he seems to genuinely believe that the center is where the Israeli people are and that, even though it is sometimes difficult to balance being in the center, it is worth staying the course.
“When people say ‘I’m in the Right’ or ‘I’m in the Left,’ you’re in the Right or in the Left of something and you are in the Right or in the Left of the only one thing that matters, which is the center, which is the hardworking people who make the machine tick,” he explained.
“Every country, let alone Israel, is formed from big contradictions: state vs religion, Judaism vs democracy, free market vs compassion, and security vs civil rights. The business of the government is to balance those. This is why we need the center and this is why we need the center to rule and arrange everything for people to be able to live. Now, in a world that is more and more polarized, the necessity for a strong center is greater and greater, and that is why we had to form a government in order to make sure this is happening,” he continued.
And he sincerely believes that the government saved the country. Israel, he said, was on a march to becoming a non-democratic state and being led by someone – Netanyahu – who is facing criminal charges. If this current government falls, he claimed, the one that Netanyahu wants to form won’t even really be led by him. It will, he said, be MK Itamar Ben-Gvir running the show.
“People think this means going backward, it is not. This is something totally new and 10-times worse than what we had before this government, because it’s non-democratic and in this equation between Bibi and Ben-Gvir, I think we all know who’s the stronger side of the equation,” he said.
“This is something totally new and 10-times worse than what we had before this government, because it’s non-democratic and in this equation between Bibi and Ben-Gvir, I think we all know who’s the stronger side of the equation.”Foreign Minister Yair Lapid
WITH ALL the coalition trouble, it is hard to understand how Lapid finds the time to also serve as foreign minister, but he does. Since the establishment of the government last year, it seems there is barely a day that goes by without him meeting or talking to a foreign counterpart, either in Israel or somewhere overseas. He has been to the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, the United States, Rome, London, Paris, Brussels and more.
As with his approach to the government, when it comes to Israeli foreign policy, Lapid refers to it as a process even though, he claimed, Israel is already doing much better. There is, he said, noticeable improvement in Israel’s bipartisan stature in the US, in its relations with the Biden administration, and in Israel’s standing in the Middle East and in Europe, which he described as being a “whole new world.”
“We still have our differences and I’m unhappy with what they [the Europeans] have to say about the Palestinians, but we came out with a formula of disagreeing in a smart way,” he explained. “Our test is not making everyone agree with us, but how we handle disagreements. And I think we’re doing much better than we did a year ago.”
“Our test is not making everyone agree with us, but how we handle disagreements. And I think we’re doing much better than we did a year ago.”Foreign Minister Yair Lapid
He admits that the world has been giving him, Bennett and their government a period of grace, partially due to a desire to see them remain in power and not have Netanyahu return.
“The politically correct answer is I don’t want them to interfere with Israeli inner politics and it’s none over their business how we run our democracy,” he said when asked if he gets the sense that this period of international grace is continuing.
“The real answer is of course, yes. They look at this government and see it’s more democratic, not subjected to non-democratic forces and it is not going to take Israel on a course it cannot tolerate.”
And that sentiment, he said, is an asset he has learned to utilize to Israel’s advantage. When we spoke this week, Economy Minister Orna Barbivai was in Dubai to sign a free-trade agreement with the UAE.
What about Saudi Arabia, I asked. Have you been there lately?
Lapid laughed. “Define lately,” he said jokingly, before answering flatly no.
More seriously, Lapid said, a normalization process with Saudi Arabia is moving forward but will take time. Any movement with Saudi Arabia, he explained, will be with what he referred to as baby steps.
“But I think some of those steps are being taken. I think that the American administration is game for this process and we appreciate that,” he added.
There are, he said, other countries that Israel is also in talks with in the region, but those ties, when asked how long it will take until normalization, will take time.
“Every country has its own domestic issues and has its own rhythm,” he said. “Look at Sudan, for example. We were already on the way to sign [an agreement] and then they had a revolution there. It’s interesting because the winning side was the pro-signing-with-Israel side of the regime but we cannot sign it because it would look like approval of what is happening there. So, there’s too many moving pieces in this for me to be able to answer.”
ONE FOREIGN minister, I pointed out, whom he has yet to meet is Riyad al-Maliki, who sits in Ramallah, just a 30-minute drive from the Knesset. Lapid said he will meet him. When? I asked. “When it’s necessary,” he replied.
“I’m not making a principle out of not meeting them, but I’m not making a principle out of meeting them,” he explained, adding that he has met with numerous other Palestinian officials over the past year. “When it’ll be in the service of our relations or the things we need – Israel’s security or foreign needs – then I will meet him.”
Biden, I mentioned, is supposed to visit Israel at the end of this month. Is there a chance he will come and try to push a new Palestinian initiative on Israel?
“Well, they always do,” Lapid said. “On the other hand, this is not only an administration but a president who is very savvy when it comes to foreign policy. So, they also understand the limits we have as a government due to the way we are.”
An illustration of this so-called “way we are” can be seen in how Lapid responds to criticism from the Right that the government is not building enough settlements in Judea and Samaria.
“The Right and the Left are equally angry at the government,” he said. “The Left for building too much and the Right for not building enough, which means we probably are building just enough.”
Where Israel and the US strongly disagree, though, is on Iran. Last week, Bennett and Lapid scored a major victory with the announcement that Biden had officially decided not to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the State Department’s foreign terrorist organizations list.
The success, he said, was the result of a long dialogue and a lot of intelligence sharing about IRGC plans to launch attacks around the world and more specifically, against the US. One argument that Israel used, he said, was the original intention to include a clause in the deal that stipulated that the IRGC would not attack Americans.
“We said, and I think we were right, that we would never sign such a clause because if somebody said they would never act against Israelis, the first question would be, what about our American friends? What about the European friends,” he explained.
Asked how the Americans were even willing to consider signing such a clause, Lapid said that it stemmed from a policy that sees a separation between the Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the Islamic Republic’s terrorist activities.
“At the beginning of the process, the common view was that the JCPOA is one thing and the terrorist activities in the region are a different thing and so there was an argument there,” he said, explaining the US view. “Not everybody, but some within the administration thought these issues should be dealt with separately; they’re saying, no, this has nothing to do with it. Fortunately or unfortunately, the ones who made the linkage at last were the Iranians who brought this to the table.”
Will the JCPOA be renewed, I asked. Will the sides end up reaching a deal in Vienna?
“I am concerned that it’s still possible because I do think this is the wrong tool,” he said. “I do not question whether or not we share the same goal, not only with the US, but also with the UK, France, Germany and Russia and China in a way, which is to prevent Iran from becoming a threshold nuclear state.”
But, he said, there are two parties involved in the dialogue and how it ends remains to be seen. Israel’s stance, he explained, has been to try and get the world to understand that the talks or a future deal cannot be only about the nuclear program but also must include Iran’s support for terrorism across the Middle East and beyond.
“It has to do with the fact and the way the Iranians are proliferating terror in the region, about the way that Iran is acting and handling itself in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and all the places where it’s brought nothing but destruction,” Lapid said.
That is why even if a deal is reached it will not apply to Israel, he declared.
“It doesn’t apply to us in any way and we are going to do whatever is necessary to make sure Iran doesn’t become a threshold nuclear state,” he said. “And since we think the Iranians are going to deceive whatever agreement they’re going to sign and since we think that this agreement is impractical to begin with, we will do whatever we think is necessary in order to prevent Iran from becoming what it wants to become.”
What that could mean might be understood from events that have been attributed to Israel in the past few months. Covert actions blamed on Israel include the bombing of a drone factory in Iran earlier this year, the assassination of a top IRGC officer in Tehran last week and the attack against a secretive Iranian military-nuclear facility with suicide drones days later.
Lapid, naturally, would not comment on any of the above but he said the following when asked if there has been a change in Israeli policy regarding what it is willing to do against Iran:
“We have told the world we are not willing to take it anymore,” he said. “Iran says we can bring the war to your doorstep because you will never bring it to ours. This is not going to happen. This is not how it’s going to play. I understand why they felt that this is how it worked in previous years but it’s not going to work with this government. If the Iranians are bringing war to our doorstep, then they’re going to find war at theirs. If they want to avoid it, then we will avoid it as well.”
IF THE government survives the coming year, Lapid is scheduled to become prime minister in the summer of 2023. For now, the chances of that happening appear slim. On Wednesday, a new coalition crisis erupted, this time from the right flank of the government involving Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, leader of New Hope, who has been reportedly holding secret talks with Likud to establish an alternative coalition.
If you were a betting man, I asked Lapid, what chance would you give yourself of becoming prime minister next August?
If I were a betting man, Lapid replied, I wouldn’t be sitting here.
“I’m not into betting on anything I’m doing,” he continued. “I am going to work hard to make this government run and I’m going to work hard to make sure that the center leads this country for years to come.”
And like a lot of what he has been working on – from coalition maintenance to foreign affairs – change is possible and it is coming; but, he stresses, it takes time. It is, he explained, a process.
“Not everything is going to happen at once,” he concluded. “Things need time. We’re changing something huge: a country. And when you’re changing a country, it’s not going to happen within a day or a month or even a year.” ■