Yair Lapid: 'Israel needs a reset'

Political Affairs: Yair Lapid on the elections, the challenges facing Israel, and the primacy of values

YAIR LAPID: I will not go into a government with someone who is the opposite of honesty and decency. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
YAIR LAPID: I will not go into a government with someone who is the opposite of honesty and decency.
In 2013, shortly after he was appointed finance minister, Yair Lapid hosted two veteran US senators – Lindsey Graham and the late John McCain – in his office in Jerusalem.
Lapid told the two Republican leaders a bit about his background and how he had been in politics for less than a year.
“What advice would you give your younger selves?” he asked.
McCain, the more senior of the two, responded. In politics, he told Lapid, people always make compromises for the so-called greater good. The problem is, he said, that the greater good never comes, and you wake up in the middle of the night and realize that you have become the “sum of all the little filthy compromises” you had to make.
It was a lesson that Lapid took to heart and that has helped steer his political career in the seven years since he was first elected. It is the reason he cites for why he will not support a unity government with the Likud as long as it is led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose bribery trial will start on March 17.
“I will not go into a government with someone who is the opposite of honesty and decency,” he says in an extensive interview this week. “I’ve known Netanyahu for a long time, and something terribly wrong has happened to him since 2015. It is what happens to every ruler who is in office for too long.”
Sitting in a coffee shop in Tel Aviv, we are interrupted a few times by people who come over to share a piece of political advice with Lapid or to simply say that they will vote for Blue and White. Lapid greets each person with a smile.
Since his Yesh Atid Party won 19 seats in 2013, Lapid’s political career has had its ups and downs. From being viewed as a front-runner to one day replace Netanyahu, he dropped to 11 seats in 2015, and in 2019 he merged with Benny Gantz, the former IDF chief of staff who had just joined politics, and became No. 2 on the list.
But Lapid says he has no problem with his current position. Israel, he explains, needs a reset, and the first step for that to happen is to remove Netanyahu from office.
“The reason I am here is to win,” he says. “My country is going in a bad place, and I went there to do something.”
It is for this reason that he says he doesn’t regret the decision Blue and White’s top leadership – known as the “cockpit” – made not to join a unity government with Netanyahu after the last election in September.
“You don’t buy a bogus offer,” he says, adding that the possibility fell apart the moment it was obvious that Netanyahu was not going to forfeit his ambition to secure immunity from prosecution, and would not have respected a unity deal.
“There is such a thing as values when in politics,” he adds.
Values are nice, we tell Lapid, but how will Blue and White form a coalition? While Blue and White might be polling slightly ahead of the Likud, we add, there is no viable coalition that you can establish, at least not one without Arab support.
Lapid rejects the idea. Netanyahu, he says, was making “completely false” allegations that Blue and White will form a government with the Joint List. He also vehemently objects to Netanyahu’s campaign focus on this issue, which he says “delegitimizes 20% of the electorate.”
Asked if Blue and White is not also delegitimizing the Arab electorate since it also rules out a government with the Arab parties, Lapid says that his party’s reason for doing so is its objection to sitting in the Knesset with MKs like Joint List MK Heba Yazbak “who are straight supporters of terrorism.”
Continues Lapid in reference to Yazbak, “As a Zionist I am offended by someone who sits in the Knesset and glorifies [Hezbollah terrorist] Samir Kuntar, who killed a four-year-old by bashing her head on a rock.”
“As someone who cares about the future, I want people to understand that there are real problems in the Arab sector and that we are obligated to try and solve them.”
But returning to how Blue and White might be able to form a government after the election, bearing in mind the polls, Lapid refuses to reveal any concrete details, ultimately acknowledging that a fourth election is a real possibility.
“If at least some in the Likud will not say “okay, every 20 years we can vote differently because we need this country to be run by good people,” then, yes, we might go to a fourth election, which would be disastrous and horrific,” he says.
ONE ISSUE that Lapid says is of serious concern is Israel’s relationship with the US Democratic Party.
Netanyahu’s warm embrace of the Trump administration and the Republican Party in general, as well as his dramatic fight with former president Barack Obama over the Iran nuclear deal and his poor relations with Obama in general, have led to concerns that support for Israel in the Democratic Party has been damaged.
Asked about what might happen if a Democrat wins the US election and Netanyahu is still in power, Lapid says he is very concerned.
“I think we’re going to be in deep, deep trouble. The Obama time is going to be just a promo for what is going to happen. These are very angry Democrats,” he says.
Lapid says that it is “the prime minister’s job to make sure Israel stays a bipartisan issue in the US, and to maintain the relationship with American Jews,” but argues that Netanyahu has failed on both counts.
He also has strong words for Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, saying he is not the Israeli ambassador to Washington but, rather, “the Bibi ambassador to the Trump administration.”
Continues Lapid, “If someone is the ambassador, and the most prominent Democratic senators have told me ‘I’m not letting him past this door,’ then he’s not doing his job right. He’s very good at getting Bibi to work with Evangelical leaders, but I’m not sure that’s the job requirement.”
Turning to the Trump peace plan unveiled in January, Lapid insists that the plan represents a “basis for negotiations.”
Lapid, Gantz, Gabi Ashkenazi and many others in Blue and White are seen as centrists on the Palestinian conflict, and often talk of maintaining Israel’s “Jewish and democratic character,” meaning that the country refrains from creating a situation in which it either has to absorb Palestinians into its population and give them full civil and electoral rights, or has to cease being a democracy.
Asked if the Trump proposals separate Israel sufficiently from the Palestinians to make this possible, Lapid says that he believes it could work, despite the tortuous contours of the putative Palestinian state and its lack of sovereign characteristics under the plan.
“If you look from above at the map of Syria, the Sykes-Picot borders looked reasonable – and look what happened there,” he says in reference to the British-French treaty that carved up the Middle East in the early 20th Century, and the bloody, ongoing, Syrian civil war.
“This is [a] map that takes into account what happened and what might happen, and tries to answer in a smart way the complexities of how to give the Palestinians self-rule without giving up on Israeli security interests,” says Lapid.
WITH REGARD to Israeli security, Lapid says that the great question of the elections is the ongoing terrorism emanating from Gaza in the form of rockets, IED inflatable devices, and other forms of violence.
Gantz has said on several occasions that Israel needs either to carry out a “decisive military operation” in Gaza or form “an arrangement” with the territory, but has not defined exactly what such an arrangement would look like or with whom it would be made.
Lapid makes clear that such an agreement would be with Hamas and would need to last several decades.
“We need to bring back deterrence, and there’s only one way to do that, and this is by force; and since this is the Middle East, it has to be a lot of force; and when Hamas understand that there’s a government in Israel you cannot bullshit with, we have to go to a long-term arrangement, by which I mean 20 or 30 years,” he declares.
He adds, however, a hope that a new military operation could nevertheless be avoided.
And he is also critical of the current government for squandering the opportunity for a long-term agreement after Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
“The army and in this case [then-IDF chief of staff] Benny Gantz did what they needed to do, which is get Israel a decisive victory. The government should have used it to get an arrangement, [but] it didn’t do anything.”
The arrangement he envisions includes the possibility of building a port for Gaza on an artificial island off its coast, and an industrial zone in the northern Gaza Strip; increasing the number of Gazans who can get work permits in Israel; ensuring Gaza’s youth unemployment declines; and guaranteeing that the territory has access to clean water and hospitals.
BLUE AND White is still performing adequately in the polls, which continue to predict that it will remain the biggest party in the Knesset, even if the path to an actual government remains difficult to see.
What Lapid is hoping is that his party’s focus on the primacy of national values will prove the difference when the final results come in.
And this is something he says he will never concede on, when asked why it is that some in the Israeli electorate seem less than well disposed to him.
“I have to ask my wife; she thinks I’m a likable guy,” he quips.
“I say what I think and I tend to speak my mind. My political history is being able to stand on my values even when it is uncomfortable to a lot of people.”