I’ve written several blogs on this site in the last couple of years explaining why I think Benjamin Netanyahu should not be prime minister, indeed why the prospect of his return, and the coalition he would build, fills me with dread. With Yair Lapid’s debut at the United Nations last week as Israel’s prime minister, and social media abuzz with his remarks supporting a two-state solution (a little absurdly in my view, of which more later), it is as good a time as any to write about the man I am supporting, including by comparing him to the candidate I regard as a genuine threat to the stability and democracy of this country.
Speaking at the UN, Lapid looked every inch a national leader to be reckoned with. Not every prime minister – or candidate for prime minister – has the gravitas, the presence, to pull this off. Netanyahu has it certainly, but Lapid does also, and unlike his predecessor he can express his pride in Israel’s “vibrant democracy”, and its “full civic equality” and actually mean it. Netanyahu has frequently waxed lyrical at the UN or at AIPAC conferences about Israel’s shared values with the West, while back in Israel he was working to undermine the rule of law, or doing everything possible to bring racists and self-confessed opponents of democracy into his coalition. Lapid by contrast has long been Israel’s most consistent defender of the liberal values that Israel shares with its allies in North America and Europe.
Just as Netanyahu has often done, Lapid brought up the topic of the Holocaust and antisemitism. In fact, his reference to “Never Again” in the context was probably the most Bibi-esque moment in his speech. And he delivered it very well. The difference lies in Lapid’s personal connection to the Holocaust. Lapid is probably the most Shoah-influenced Israeli prime minister since Menachem Begin. If that sounds like hyperbole, read his wonderful biography of his father, Tommy Lapid, who lost his own father to the Nazis and who survived the Budapest Ghetto and narrowly escaped transportation to the camps.
And while the only antisemitism that really exercises Netanyahu is the antisemitism aimed at Israel and Zionism – largely from the Muslim world and from Western leftists – Lapid has a zero tolerance approach to antisemitism from any and every quarter. Netanyahu’s response to the Holocaust revisionism of Poland’s current nationalist government was to limit his criticism and reach a compromise, harshly criticised by Yad Vashem as endorsing “a narrative that research has long since disproved” and as a “betrayal” of Polish liberals who had been fighting their government’s distortion of history. Poland and Hungary form an axis of “illiberal democracy” in Europe (they have elections, but restrict an independent judiciary and a free press), and Netanyahu sees these regimes as kindred spirits. He was not going to let a small matter like Holocaust distortion upset his relationship with an ideological partner.
Lapid did not even wait to become prime minister before he acted to reverse this acquiescence in Poland’s outrageous behaviour, declaring as foreign minister that “Poland has become an anti-democratic and illiberal country that does not honor the greatest tragedy in human history. We must never remain silent. Israel and the Jewish people will certainly not remain silent.”
While in the United States for the UN gathering, Lapid also met with American Jewish leaders. Here too, comparisons were made with his predecessor, as reported in The Jerusalem Post:
he distinguished himself from Netanyahu by listening and not lecturing, according to one participant.
‘The big difference is that Bibi would take two questions and basically just give his spiel…And Lapid took 10 questions and actually answered them and was engaged’
Lapid is genuinely committed to Diaspora Jewry. Though Netanyahu lived for many years in the U.S., he was never connected to, nor felt much affinity for, American Jewry. He almost certainly shares the view of his close adviser and former Ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, that Israel would be better off focusing on pro-Israel evangelical Christians than American Jews.
And what of the real headline-grabber in that UN speech? “Lapid supports a two-state solution!!” Right-wingers in Israel hysterically declared him a danger to Israeli security and an “extreme leftist”. They should calm down and – certainly in the case of Bibi-supporters – check their hypocrisy. No one who heard Lapid’s remarks in context could have any doubt that he was reiterating an extremely mainstream position, one shared by the majority of Israel’s former heads of the IDF, the Shin Bet, and the Mossad: that Israel should look to negotiate a two-state deal with the Palestinians, if Israeli security is guaranteed. In Lapid’s well-chosen words:
We have only one condition: That a future Palestinian state will be a peaceful one. That it will not become another terror base from which to threaten the well-being, and the very existence of Israel. That we will have the ability to protect the security of all the citizens of Israel, at all times…
You can ask us to live according to the values in the UN Charter, but you cannot ask us to die for them.
My father was a child in the Ghetto, my grandfather was murdered in a
concentration camp. We want to live in peace but only if it gives us security, not if it threatens us even more.
This is substantially no different from the cautious two-state declaration of one Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009. And as recently as 2016, Netanyahu used a UN speech to say: “I remain committed to a vision of peace based on two states for two peoples.” We should be calling out the Bibi’ists hypocrisy.
Yair Lapid did not choose to be prime minister in quite the manner it has occurred, but he undoubtedly deserves to be there; building a party from scratch into the second largest in the Knesset – and the second largest nationally in terms of grassroots activism and membership. Those who still maintain that he is superficial should read his 2020 essay that appeared in English on this news site, which Yossi Klein Halevi called “the most memorable political essay that I’ve seen from any Israeli politician”.
It may be that you don’t agree with Lapid on certain issues; he’s too left-wing for you, he’s too right-wing for you. That’s your prerogative. But if you want an Israeli prime minister who is unapologetic in his Zionism and unequivocal in his commitment to Israeli security; who will confront antisemitism from whatever source it comes; and who will fight to keep Israel a liberal democratic state for all Jews, Lapid is the best candidate by some distance.