On June 14, a day after the new government was sworn in, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid delivered his first speech in his new role at a ceremony in the Foreign Ministry where he took over from Gabi Ashkenazi.
His speech was essentially a broad outline of where he would like to take Israel’s foreign policy and the Foreign Ministry during his tenure.
On Tuesday, the Mitvim Institute, a left-leaning think tank, published its Ninth Annual Public Opinion Survey on Israeli Foreign Policy. The poll, in collaboration with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, was taken in September and carried out by the Rafi Smith Institute among a representative sample of the Israeli population (700 men and women, Jews and Arabs), with a sampling error of 3.5%. It provides an instructive look at how the public views the country’s foreign policy.
What follows is a look at some of Lapid’s assumptions and policy goals, and what the public believes to be the case. In many instances what emerges are significant gaps between the two.
Israel’s standing in the world
“In recent years, Israel has disgracefully neglected its foreign service [and] the international arena,” Lapid said in that speech in the Foreign Ministry. “Then it woke up in the morning and was surprised to find that there was considerable erosion in its international standing.”
Lapid’s premise was simple: Israel’s stature in the world arena was low. But the public, according to the Mitvim survey, does not necessarily agree with that basic assumption.
Asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, Israel’s standing in the world today, almost three-fourths of the country gave it a score of 5 or higher, with the average rating being 5.58. That does not indicate a country that believes its international standing is in the doldrums.
What is even more interesting, and what flies in the face of Lapid’s premise, is that this figure – the poll was taken with him firmly in the foreign minister’s chair – is at its lowest since 2017, with the poll showing that Israel’s stature was better from 2018 to 2020, when Benjamin Netanyahu was premier.
The poll also showed that the public was more satisfied with the government’s handling of foreign policy in 2019 and 2020, under Netanyahu, than it is today under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Lapid.
As for Lapid’s claim that Israel has neglected its foreign service, while the poll finds that a vast majority of the public wants to see the Foreign Ministry strengthened, when asked how satisfied the public is with the Foreign Ministry’s status today, more were satisfied in 2019 and 2020 than they were in 2021. That result shows that at least in the eyes of the public, Lapid has not yet succeeded in bolstering the image of the ministry.
Relations with the US
Lapid blasted the former government in this speech for “abandoning” major international arenas.
For instance, he said, the policy toward the US Democratic Party “was both disgraceful and dangerous,” and in his estimation, the former government took a “bad, dangerous and hasty bet” on the Republicans, and abandoned its traditional position of bipartisanship.
So, four months into his tenure and his efforts at making inroads with the Democrats, how does the public view the current ties with the US? On a scale of 1 to 10, the public gave the current state of Israel-US relations a grade of 6.46, the lowest rating since 2016, when Barack Obama was president. Under the four years of president Donald Trump, this rating varied from a low of 6.88 in 2017 to a high of 8.05 in 2020.
Lapid has said repeatedly it was a mistake for Netanyahu to focus on the Republicans, but the public – according to this poll – believes that in the years when this was the policy, Israel’s ties with the US were better.
Even though the Biden administration has been careful up until now not to pick public fights with Jerusalem, or apply heavy public pressure – as was the case during the Obama years – some 53% of the public, and 58% of the Jewish respondents, believe the Biden administration is “less beneficial for Israel” than the previous administration. And this is even before disagreements over Iran and the opening of a Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem fully break out into the open.
Relations with the EU
“The situation with the countries of the EU is also not good,” Lapid said in June. “Relations with too many governments have been neglected and turned hostile. To shout that ‘everyone is antisemitic’ is neither a policy nor a plan of action, even if it sometimes feels right.”
Lapid said at the time that he had already spoken to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and French President Emmanuel Macron, who believe there is a need to deepen the dialogue between Israel and Europe. His first four months in office have been marked by an effort to improve ties with Brussels and certain Western European countries, and to distance Israel from the “illiberal” EU countries such as Hungary and Poland.
The public, however, largely does view the EU as a foe.
Asked if the EU is now more a “friend or an opponent of Israel,” 46% of the general public, and 51% of Jews, said “more of an opponent.”
If a condition for joining various EU programs was that the settlements would not be included in them, 47% said Israel should not join, while 35% said they should – a figure that belies the premise that Israelis are unconcerned by policies, such as the Ben & Jerry’s boycott, that “only” target those Israelis living beyond the Green Line.
The polls also showed that as Lapid steers Israel away from countries like Hungary, he is going against a position articulated by 43% of the public, which believes that Israel “should not consider regime type as a factor when building its foreign relations.” However, an equal percentage of people (42%) said it should “give priority to developing ties with democratic countries.”
Israel and the region
Lapid’s assertion that Israel needs to strive for more agreements with Muslim nations is very much in the national consensus. Interestingly, however, 31% of the respondents did not feel that Israel’s position in the Middle East has changed significantly as a result of the Abraham Accords, though 34% did detect a change.
While this government has not made any public moves to improve ties with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, a country that has proven implacably hostile to Israel, some 61% of the population think Israel should try to do so. Even with the Abraham Accords, and following an initial enthusiasm in visiting the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, some 48% of the country said they had no interest in visiting an Arab country in the region, up from 41% who said the same thing three years ago.
Tellingly, only 2.7% of the public has an interest in visiting Jordan, down from 8% in 2018 and a sign that Israelis have no great desire to visit countries – even those close by – where they do not feel welcome.
Israel and the Palestinians
Lapid, in his speech, said that while a diplomatic breakthrough with the Palestinians is not in the immediate offing, there is much Israel can do to improve the living conditions of the Palestinians and to improve the dialogue.
The public, however, does not feel that this should include strengthening the Palestinian Authority. Asked whether, in light of the political and economic crisis in the PA, Israel should work to strengthen it, only 28% said this would be the wise policy, while 38% said Israel should not intervene.
And as far as a dialogue with the PA is concerned, even as Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Meretz ministers traveled to Ramallah to meet PA President Mahmoud Abbas in recent weeks, only 32% said this was a positive development that will contribute to improving relations, while 46% said it was either a symbolic move that will not impact Israel-Palestinian relations (29%) or a negative development (17%) that actually harms Israeli interests.
Israel vs Iran
One area where there was much compatibility between what Lapid said and what the public believes is in regard to Iran, where he said that in preparing for the possibility that the US will return to the nuclear deal, Israel’s guiding principle needs to be that it will prevent in any way the possibility that Iran will get a nuclear weapon.
There is a wide consensus on this, though the country is split regarding whether it should do so independently through military action, be it covert or overt (31%) or through forming coalitions with other Mideast countries against Iran (34%). Only 17.5% thought that Israel should support the international efforts to renew and improve the 2015 nuclear deal.