Israel's Lapid prepares for future confrontation with Netanyahu
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is consolidating his international standing, in preparation for taking over the premiership and for future confrontation with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
AFP via Getty Images
Mazal Mualem
Israeli elections
August 18, 2021
It has been two months since Yair Lapid took over the Israeli Foreign Ministry, but in that short time, it is patently obvious that he wants to leave his mark there. The mood is very different under him. He is trying to prove to everyone that he can do the job better than his predecessor, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Lapid is certainly going about it differently.
And yet, in the big picture, the Foreign Ministry is just a way station for him. The rotation agreement with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has Lapid leaving the Foreign Ministry in about two years’ time so that he can become prime minister. That will happen if all goes according to plan, and the fragile government survives beyond all initial expectations. In the event that the government collapses, Lapid would immediately become prime minister, meaning that he would fill the office during the next election campaign. Should that happen, it is highly likely that he would have to run against Netanyahu. The practical implications are obvious. Lapid would have to distinguish himself from Netanyahu and prove that he is the better statesman. That is exactly what Lapid is trying to do now.
The most recent and perhaps most indicative example of this strategy is Lapid’s ongoing clash with the Polish government, which is turning into a real diplomatic crisis. Tension rose when Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a law limiting claims by survivors of the Nazi atrocities for property that was nationalized after World War II. While the law does not target Jews specifically, it makes it more difficult for Holocaust survivors to sue for compensation. Lapid is the son of a Holocaust survivor, former Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, who fought long and hard against earlier iterations of this law. Nevertheless, Yair Lapid’s sharp response surprised even the Polish government.
With the flag of Israel hanging behind him, Lapid told a press conference that he recalled the head of the Israeli delegation to Warsaw, Israeli Charge d'Affaires Tal Ben-Ari Yaalon, indefinitely for consultations and put a hold on sending Israel's new ambassador to Poland, Yaakov Livne, to Warsaw.
“This evening,” Lapid said, “Poland joined the ranks of the undemocratic states. It is not a liberal nation. It shows no respect for the greatest tragedy in all of human history. The world must not be silent. Israel and the Jewish people will not be silent.”
The Polish response was no less scathing. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned that Israel’s continued attacks on Poland would result in serious repercussions to the bilateral relationship between the two countries, and even on their relations in international forums. Morawiecki then went on to accuse Lapid of acting irresponsibly for political reasons on Facebook, saying, “Israel's decision to lower the diplomatic representation in Warsaw is baseless and irresponsible, and the words of Jair Lapid … create outrage for every honest person. No one who knows the truth about the Holocaust and the sufferings of Poland during World War II can accept this way of conducting politics. Using this tragedy for party interests is … irresponsible.”
The general consensus in Israel is that Lapid’s protest against the new law is valid. After all, it impinges on the memory of the Holocaust and the rights of the survivors. That is why many political figures have lent their support to Lapid. Nevertheless, there has also been some concern about whether the foreign minister showed political acumen in responding the way he did. Did he overshoot the mark? Will he be able to mend the relationship with Poland, an important ally at least until now?
There can be no doubt that the incident with Poland signals a new era in the relationship between the two countries, which grew closer under Netanyahu. Netanyahu took the strategic step of strengthening Israel’s ties with Eastern Europe as a counterbalance to Western Europe. He wanted the Eastern Europeans’ support on major diplomatic issues in the international arena, particularly when it came to West Bank settlements. Lapid is now taking that new alliance apart, preferring instead to restore closer relations with the states of Western Europe. This could indicate his willingness to lay the groundwork for renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
As of now, the crisis between Israel and Poland is far from being resolved. The Polish government is taking an even sharper tone, while Lapid has shown no willingness to compromise. Instead, he is drawing support from the reaction of his friend and colleague, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Blinken tweeted that the United States is “deeply disappointed” by Poland’s approval of the new law, and called on the Polish government “to create a clear and efficient legal process to resolves claims over confiscated property and provide the victims with a modicum of justice.”
Lapid immediately retweeted Blinken, adding, “Thank you @SecBlinken for standing shoulder to shoulder with Israel against the Polish law.”
While it is important for Lapid to highlight his good relationship with the White House, the fact is that he does have a cordial relationship with Blinken. The two men have already met and they also have spoken by phone. For Lapid, this relationship has certain long-term advantages, particularly in building up his brand as a leader. It affords him with an opportunity to prove to the public that he is nothing like Netanyahu, who feuded frequently with the US government whenever the Democrats were in office. While Netanyahu violated the longstanding tradition of bipartisanship in Israel’s relations with the United States during the Obama Administration, Lapid wants to show that he has open channels of communication with the White House, regardless of who is in office.
Lapid has come a long way since he first started his center-right party nine years ago. One year later, in 2013, he shocked the Israeli political system by winning an astounding 19 seats. Yet, as impressive as that was, he has never been able to repeat that success. Most important, he has never managed to position himself as a suitable candidate for prime minister. As time passes, it becomes increasingly evident that Lapid has never been able to break through that barrier and prove he has what it takes to fill that office.
This has been his greatest weakness. He lacked military or diplomatic experience, and he failed to break free of his image as a journalist and television personality — two positions he held before entering politics.
The difference now is that Lapid has chosen a new path. He has finally given up on his attempts to win voters from the Likud, preferring instead to focus his attention on a more natural center-left electorate. In the March election, he managed to become leader of the center-left when his Yesh Atid party won 17 seats. From that position of strength, he entered negotiations with Bennett, not only on behalf of his own party, but also on behalf of the Labor party and Meretz. From a strategic perspective, this was an important step forward on his way to achieving his ultimate goal. He found his base, and now he also has a position that he can use to build up his reputation.
Lapid is using his term as foreign minister to create a new agenda and establish himself as a familiar figure in the international arena. That is why he is avoiding the coronavirus crisis. He prefers glitzy, high-profile trips abroad instead. He has just returned from Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, and is now planning diplomatic missions to Europe and the United States.
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