Should they prove successful, neither Yair Lapid nor Naftali Bennett deserves credit for Israel’s next government. That right should go to their sponsors — the United States.
For nearly a decade, Washington has been working with Lapid and Bennett to ensure that they serve the U.S. agenda. In 2012, then-U.S. ambassador Dan Shapiro to Israel went out of his way to praise Lapid, calling his entry into politics a “fascinating new element.”
The flattery reflected concern in both the White House and Congress that Lapid and Bennett would usher in an assertive Israeli leadership that would resist American dictates. Unlike the traditional left in Israel, Lapid often stressed the need for consensus in defense and foreign policy issues.
Back in June 2013, the Congressional Research Service released a report that warned of a demographic shift in Israel that could threaten U.S. interests. Authored by Middle East affairs specialist Jim Zanotti, CRS, mandated to provide background and analysis to Congress, envisioned an Israel that would be richer, energy-sufficient and less vulnerable to U.S. pressure. The report saw the increase in the influence of Haredim, Russian emigrants and even Arabs, expected to focus on the economy rather than the Palestinians. CRS named the new politicians who could prove difficult.
“The government formed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in March 2013 features a set of coalition partners that is different from the previous government, largely due to electoral gains on socioeconomic issues by new national leaders and possible future prime ministerial candidates Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett,” the report, titled “Israel: Background and U.S. Relations,” said. “…Israel’s demographic profile has evolved in a way that appears to be affecting its political orientation and societal debates.”
Toward the end of the long CRS report, Zanotti expressed U.S. concern over Lapid and Bennett. Lapid was said to have refused to publicly oppose Netanyahu’s policy toward the Palestinians. The reason, the report said, could be Lapid’s concern that he not be seen as influenced by Washington or other foreign powers.
Regarding Bennett, then economy minister, CRS envisioned that he could “obstruct negotiating opportunities that depend on limiting settlement planning and construction, due to [his party’s] its control over the housing ministry. Moreover, government ministers favoring a return to negotiations remain constrained by widespread popular concerns regarding the security risks of military withdrawal or territorial concessions in the West Bank.”
Since 2013, the importance of Lapid and Bennett has only increased in Washington. That same year, Lapid made the list of Time Magazine’s most influential 100 people in the world. In January 2021, another CRS report by Zanotti termed Bennett a key figure in any future government coalition, regardless of Netanyahu. Lapid was listed as a major opponent of Netanyahu and prepared to work with Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Sa’ar.
Washington has worked hard to change Lapid’s so-called centrist positions. He has been invited repeatedly to the United States to meet senior officials and prominent Americans, whether Democrats or Republicans. Just days before the Covid-19 lockdown in January 2021, he returned from meetings with his American advisors, including pollster Mark Mellman, a leading figure in the Democratic Party. and the main consultant to John Kerry during his failed presidential attempt in 2004.
Other Israeli political leaders, including Netanyahu, also worked with American advisers during the last election. Lieberman worked with Arthur Finkelstein and Labor’s Meirav Michaeli consulted with Stanley Greenberg. These Americans don’t speak or read Hebrew and wouldn’t know Bat Yam from a hole in the wall. But they could be counted on to supply legitimacy and money from America.
Eventually, the U.S. wooing showed results. In October 2014, Lapid was invited to meet President Barack Obama and senior Cabinet ministers while then Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was snubbed. Lapid, who keeps a photograph of David Ben-Gurion in his office, called on Israel to show “respect and responsibility” to Washington.
In 2015, Lapid, warning of charges of dual loyalty, urged American Jews not to oppose Obama on the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran. He became highly outspoken in promoting LGBT and the Democratic Party, particularly during the election campaign of 2020. He also expressed support for an official Palestinian state in the West Bank despite acknowledging that this would not result in peace with Israel.
Bennett provided his loyalty to Washington in 2019. As defense minister, Bennett maintained the Israeli policy of restraint amid Hamas rocket attacks, demolished Jewish homes in the West Bank and approved administrative detention of Jewish dissidents. His promise to expel the Iranian presence from Syria by the end of 2020 was abandoned.
Washington was able to groom Lapid and Bennett without the pressure of time. For more than 12 years, Netanyahu proved his loyalty to the U.S. agenda at the expense of Israeli sovereignty. They including calling off an attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities, placing Israel’s new natural gas reserves under U.S. control and buying billions of dollars worth of F-35s that ended up being rejected by the U.S. Air Force. Netanyahu also allowed Washington unprecedented intervention in Israel’s financial system and legislation, including agreeing to the appointment of a former U.S. official, Stanley Fischer, to head the Bank of Israel. In 2013, Fischer left Israel and was soon appointed vice chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank.
As long as Donald Trump was president, Netanyahu could count on a friend in the White House. But when Biden entered the Oval Office, Lapid became the point man in working with Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar to form a coalition without Netanyahu. During Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Israel in late May, he held a late-night meeting with Lapid.
The usefulness of a Lapid-Bennett coalition to Biden would be to reverse any improvement in Israel-U.S. relations under Trump. The Israel-Palestinian conflict and reconciliation with Iran have been restored to the top of Washington’s Middle East policy agenda. Arab countries that established ties with Israel during the Trump administration would not receive the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Biden, through Blinken, intends to intervene in virtually every move to strengthen Jewish ties to Jerusalem and the West Bank.
How long a Lapid-Bennett government lasts will drive Biden’s agenda. He will seek to bind Israel to agreements, particularly on a Palestinian state and Iran, that would commit any future Israeli government — if there is one.
So, say what you want about Israel’s crumbling political system. Uncle Sam still has the last word.