Israel's dream team: PM Netanyahu, DM Gantz, FM Lapid - opinion

If Israel wants the world to confront Iran, then Israel should show that it prioritizes this kind of national security threat over politics, the writer says.

 PRIME MINISTER Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Energy Minister Karin Elharrar attend a news conference on the maritime agreement with Lebanon, at the Prime Minister’s Office, last week.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Energy Minister Karin Elharrar attend a news conference on the maritime agreement with Lebanon, at the Prime Minister’s Office, last week.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

"Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics.” So muttered Henry Kissinger to US journalist Ed Sheehan in 1975. Kissinger had just left a meeting with defense minister Shimon Peres who had torpedoed Israel’s second withdrawal from Sinai, so as not to give a political win to his rival prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Let’s stipulate Kissinger was being a sourpuss. Nevertheless, he had a point about Israel’s political elite. 

Israel's long-term and short-term threats

Today, with Israel going into elections, the country faces an array of serious security threats, some of which are long-term. But the threat of a nuclear Iran is short-term. After more than 12 years of warning that Iran is just months away from becoming a threshold nuclear power, Israel may finally be right. How the world reacts to Iran’s next moves in its nuclear program will be the single biggest focus of the next government. 

To face this nuclear threat, Israel needs to put its best team on the field and keep it there for a full term. I think the Israeli public knows who is on that team: Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, Benny Gantz as defense minister and Yair Lapid as foreign minister. 

No more rotational arrangements that undermine the confidence of our allies and partners and only make sense in the matrix of Israeli domestic politics. If Israel wants the world and especially the US to confront Iran, which threatens its very existence, then Israel should show that it prioritizes this kind of national security threat over the self-interested political considerations of its leaders.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and alternate Prime Minister, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and alternate Prime Minister, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

How do we get Bibi, Lapid and Gantz to work together for the good of the country? On the face of it, there are three easy pieces: Bibi as prime minister with no rotations, no far-Right in the government, and steps to engage the Palestinian Authority.

How would we get Netanyahu, Lapid and Gantz to work together for Israel?

First, Lapid and Gantz need to bring their parties into a Likud-led government and agree to serve under Bibi as prime minister. Each of them has done this in the past. They should be able to do so again, despite all of the hard feelings and demonization that attend political campaigns. 

Bibi remains the country’s best political leader. In making this judgment, allow me to stipulate two things: first, I have been in many private meetings with Bibi and Lapid and a few with Gantz both as a US diplomat and in the private sector; second, I have no ideological or personal feelings about any of these men, nor do I aspire to a government office. 

Bibi is one of the most effective interlocutors I have seen in nearly 30 years as a US diplomat. In meetings with US secretaries of state, members of Congress, governors or Muslim religious leaders, he appears to know what he wants from each meeting and to have a strategy to get there. I was impressed with how he mobilized world opinion in the period 2010-2012 to confront Iran. 

Friends of mine now say he isn’t the same person he was in 2010. But I disagree. I witnessed how he led Israel during the pandemic two years ago. He not only got out ahead of other countries in acquiring vaccine supply but also did a strong job at the beginning of the crisis of explaining what each of us needed to do (wear masks, wash hands, maintain distance). 

Lapid is very talented interpersonally. He is a strong writer and public speaker. He is not on the same level as Bibi as a policymaker, that doesn’t appear to be one of his top skills. While he wasn’t an effective finance minister, he has done much better as a foreign minister, which is a better fit for him.

Gantz has renamed his party National Unity (Mamlachti), indicating that he is above politics, so we should expect him to be the first to join a centrist coalition. He is a steady presence at the most powerful ministry, defense, and like some other generals-turned-politician, is best suited for that job rather than the prime minister. 

The second and third pieces are for Bibi. He needs to not bring the far-Right Religious Zionist Party into his government and he does need to take steps toward the Palestinian Authority, to create a sustained anti-Iran coalition and maintain Israel’s credibility in the outside world

The anti-Arab racism of the far Right makes a government that includes them a very difficult one for our would-be allies, not to mention Israel’s global reputation. Of course, certain journalists in Israel and the West also attempt to demonize Bibi and the Likud, but that is very often partisanship masquerading as journalism. Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, on the other hand, are not politics as usual.

Engaging the Palestinian Authority would involve using Gantz and Lapid as emissaries, showing the world that Israel will take diplomatic steps in a new government to engage this very difficult, failing neighbor. It may not result in any progress, but the optics of Jerusalem reaching out to Ramallah are important, especially to our current and future friends in the Gulf.

My Israeli friends say these three steps are a pipe dream – Gantz and Lapid won’t agree and Bibi will take the easy road of the far-Right. No one wants to be a freier, a sucker. Everyone is looking out for number one, and if Bibi plus the Right can get to 61 mandates, then that will be the next government, at least for a while.

The loser in this conventional-thinking scenario is the Israeli public. As the last four elections have shown, they are nearly evenly divided between Center-Left and Center-Right. They should expect their leaders to compromise along the lines of the three easy pieces, create a government of the center and rise above domestic politics for the sake of national goals. 

It’s what we need to effectively face the prospect of a nuclear Iran. 

The writer is a former senior US diplomat. He is currently a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, managing editor of The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune, lecturer at Shalem College and president of IJMA – Inter Jewish Muslim Alliance.