Filling the void: Israel’s self-styled shadow foreign minister

With no designated foreign minister in sight, Yair Lapid decided to become a diplomat in his fight against the government from the opposition.

Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid attends a pro-Israel rally in front of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March (photo credit: YESH ATID)
Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid attends a pro-Israel rally in front of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March
(photo credit: YESH ATID)
Israel doesn’t have a “shadow government” like other countries do, but it’s clear that Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid still sees himself as Israel’s shadow foreign minister.
Like any opposition member worth his name, the former finance minister has vocally criticized much of the government’s foreign policies since it was sworn in last year, but he hasn’t limited himself to talk. Lapid traveled to Brussels, Geneva, Washington and more to advocate for Israel before foreign leaders and diplomats.
The way Lapid tells it, after finding Yesh Atid in the opposition after the 2015 election, he looked for a way to make himself useful.
Lapid spoke to The Jerusalem Post at a cafe in his Ramat Aviv neighborhood, wearing the black T-shirt and jeans that was his signature look for many years as a television presenter, before he became a politician. He spoke near-fluent English – occasionally deliberating over the best word – in an almost-British accent he picked up as a child, when living in London while his father, former justice minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid was Ma’ariv’s correspondent in London.
“I tried to figure out how I can still do good for the country in the best manner possible,” he said of his focus on foreign policy after leaving the Finance Ministry for the opposition. “I was elected to serve the people of Israel in the best manner I can, and this was it.”
Plus, there was the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to keep the Foreign Ministry for himself.
Asked if the lack of a foreign minister was a political opportunity for Lapid, he smiled: “It’s not an opportunity; it’s a problem, and I tend, sometimes against my best interests, to try to solve problems when I see them.
“The fact that the Foreign Ministry was split between six ministers who have no idea what the other five are doing, and the fact that Israeli hasbara [public diplomacy] is split up [between ministries] and Israel’s stature in the world is declining, and the kind of relations we have in the Jewish community are also in decline, all this needs to be addressed,” he said.
Lapid recounted an experience in January, which he said exemplified the problem. He went to a gathering of European foreign ministers in Brussels, where he said he “knew they were planning to pass another anti-Israel resolution, and it was getting more and more practical, not just declarative,” but in the end the resolution was not as harmful as he expected.
The Yesh Atid chairman met with EU High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini and European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Elmar Brok, among others, and in conversations with officials found that no other Israeli government representative had approached them about the issue.
Lapid posited that neglecting international forums can only hurt Israel.
“People say we should ‘boycott back,’ and I always say that when the IDF hears someone shoots at Israel, they go there, they don’t go somewhere else. It’s the same with foreign policy. If someone is shooting at you, fight back.... It’s possible to have a practical impact, and it’s possible to at least be there,” he stated.
“This is the thing to do, and the Israeli government is not doing it,” he added.
Lapid was also concerned about the government’s absence in another forum – talks with the United States about the Memorandum of Understanding on military aid. The previous MOU was for $30 billion over 10 years.
According to the Yesh Atid chairman, “we had a better window of opportunity to seal a better deal after the Iranian deal was signed in Vienna, and before it was brought to Congress.
Since moving in diplomatic circles, Lapid knows how to choose his words carefully, saying he won’t criticize the government abroad or in English.
(When he criticizes the government in Hebrew, The Jerusalem Post translates it.) “I’m not trying to show that the government is incompetent. They’re doing a good job of that themselves,” he quipped.
Though he clearly disapproved of the way the government is dealing with the MOU, the strongest wording Lapid would use was that it was “mishandled.”
“The prime minister said he was going to get us a deal of $50 billion and it isn’t even going to be close,” Lapid said. “It’s OK to have a tough negotiation, I’m all for it... but there’s another rule: Don’t walk away from the table. You should stay at the table and seal the deal.”
After speaking to “American friends on the Hill and in the House,” Lapid determined that Israel should try to finish with the MOU as soon as possible, before the next US president begins his term.
“After the [US] election, we will get either the cautious or the unexpected, and I’m sure neither of those options will give us a better deal on the MOU,” he said.
As for the next US president, whoever he or she may be, Lapid said it is not a good idea for Israeli politicians to comment, and that he said the same to the MKs in his faction.
The one exception Lapid made was for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, when he vastly inflated the Gazan death toll from 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, writing an op-ed countering Sanders’s claim in the same newspaper to which he made them, the New York Daily News.
When asked whether repeated incidents in which a Republican-dominated Congress criticized the White House on matters relating to Israel – most recently in a letter from 83 senators to Obama telling him to increase aide in the MOU – is a problem, Lapid expressed concern for the future of bipartisan support for Israel in the US.
“This is dangerous ground, and I’m spotting small but noticeable insurgents within the Democratic Party that I’m worried about,” he said, saying it’s important to think long-term about US-Israel ties and not just short-term.
Despite his disagreements with the government, Lapid said he cooperates with it, including Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, whom he called “a very positive person and an effective minister, but he’s also the Public Security Minister, so he has a stabbing intifada and police sexual harassment [to contend with] and doesn’t have time to deal with [boycotts against Israel, which his ministry is responsible for combating].”
In fact, Lapid was in full agreement with Netanyahu’s recent declaration that the Golan Heights will always be under Israeli sovereignty.
“I disagree with people who say ‘yes, but it’s not the right time.’ It’s never the right time, and it has to be declared again and again: We won’t give the Golan Heights to anyone. It is ours. It is not part of any negotiations and never will be, due to security reasons,” he said.
“How many Palestinians live [in the Golan Heights]? The answer is no one.
Let’s say we were crazier to give it back.
Who would we give it to? The possibilities are Hezbollah, ISIS, Jabat al-Nusra, which is an al-Qaida affiliate, or what’s left of the Syrian army, led by Iranians.
That’s not a very encouraging variety of partners.”
Lapid was more concerned with the government’s response to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, saying he totally disagreed with a comment by Education Minister Naftali Bennett in a recent interview with the Post that boycotts are not hurting Israel.
“That was the theory in Israel for the last decade, and that’s what brought us to the [EU] decision on labeling, and what is happening in the UN Human Rights Council and other UN decisions, on American campuses, etc. BDS started small, and it’s not small anymore.
It’s a huge problem,” Lapid posited.
“Israeli business people have more and more trouble doing business.”
He also took issue with the claims that if Israel were to move towards a two-state solution, boycotts would no longer be a problem.
“The BDS movement has nothing to do with the two-state solution. The BDS movement doesn’t want a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It’s a wing of Hamas, and the Hamas manifesto calls for the total destruction of Israel 12 times,” Lapid said.
Lapid cited a recent column in The Wall Street Journal indicating that the funding behind a leading campus BDS group Students for Justice in Palestine comes from another group started by senior Hamas member Mousa Abu-Marzouk, who was designated as a terrorist by the US Treasury Department.
“I support the two-state solution with security measures and Jerusalem remaining ours, but it’s not like [boycotters] will stop because of it,” Lapid explained. “It will be easier with the Americans and Europeans, but the right way to fight BDS is not to try to answer their allegations, because that’s playing defense, but to call their bluff, to call them what they really are: A terrorist organization that has two wings.
One is firing missiles and building tunnels, and the other is lying through their teeth about their real intentions and uses what Lenin used to call ‘useful idiots’ like [former Pink Floyd frontman] Roger Waters and very left-wing NGOs around Europe and the US, telling them they’re serving the two state solution... while promoting their real goal, the destruction of Israel.”
The battle against boycotts is fought in the middle, Lapid added. It’s a fight for “the hearts and minds of people in between us and the BDS movement; they’re winnable.”
The fight needs to be taken at a national level, Lapid said, with the brainpower of the start-up nation behind a financed, organized campaign with coordinated messaging.
But to properly do that, the self-appointed shadow foreign minister argued, “we should have a foreign minister.”