Yair Lapid on Israel’s regional challenges: Thinking beyond the current government

In a wide-ranging 90-minute session at Brookings earlier today, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid offered a number of observations that the U.S. government would do well to ponder.

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke out so forcefully against the emerging nuclear deal with Iran, Lapid asserted, he was representing a broad Israeli consensus cutting across partisan lines. “Israelis are unified on Iran not because of Netanyahu but in spite of him,” Lapid said. 

Three concerns about the possible deal are key to Israeli sentiments. If Iranian nuclear installations are not fully open to international observation, including surprise inspections, Israelis would regard the deal as essentially unverifiable. Second, Israelis believe that sanctions should be lifted at most gradually, in response to verified Iranian compliance, and that the mechanism for restoring them in response to noncompliance should be straightforward—not subject to veto by any party or parties to the agreement.

Third, Lapid dwelled on his doubts about the Obama administration’s willingness to act on Iranian violations between now and the 2016 presidential election. What would happen, he asked, if Israel came to the U.S. government six months after the deal is inked with clear evidence of cheating by Teheran? His prediction: the administration would downplay the seriousness of the violation and stall for time. Even worse than an inadequate deal, he suggested, would be the unwillingness of the United States to enforce it.

Another central area of concern, predictably, was the stalled negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians. In Lapid’s view, these bilateral talks have hit a wall and cannot succeed: “The maximum Israel can offer is less than the Palestinians can accept.” His proposed alternative is a regional summit hosted by Egypt. To get there, Israel should declare its acceptance of the Saudi Peace Initiative as a framework for negotiation toward a two-state solution.

This raises a question: why should a change of format and venue produce a different result? Lapid’s answer: Palestinians will be more willing to reach an agreement if they know that they have the support of key Arab states on charged issues such as the final status of Jerusalem, and Israel will have a greater incentive to make hard choices—especially about settlements—if it can gain otherwise unavailable advantages such as access to regional economic markets.

Though largely unknown outside a small circle of Washington experts, this proposal has been widely discussed in Israel. It has been endorsed by officials such as President Reuven Rivlin and Interior Minister Silvan Shalom, Lapid said, citing survey data showing that 71 percent of Israelis support it as well.

Changing circumstances in the region are making Arab states more open to a summit along these lines, Lapid asserted. For decades, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was the central Arab concern, but now they “want to get rid of the . . . problem” to focus on growing chaos in the region and the mounting Iranian threat. “They are more preoccupied,” said Lapid, “with other things—things that Israel is good at,” ranging from anti-terrorist intelligence to advanced water technology. Less fraught relations with Israel could also improve relations between Arab states and the U.S. Lapid insisted that these states know they must now choose between two of their long-term adversaries—Israel and Iran—and that they regard Israel as by far the lesser threat.

Lapid has discussed his proposal for regionalizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a large number of U.S. officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, garnering expressions of interest that the Yesh Atid leader regards as more than perfunctory. He has been less successful with his own prime minister, whom he characterizes as reluctant to enter into any room without knowing what will emerge from it.

But Lapid is thinking beyond the current government, which rests on the narrowest possible majority of 61 Knesset members. “I see no way for this coalition to last more than one budget,” he said, because “they have in front of them a series of bills they cannot pass.” He cited one example with obvious relish—the new coalition’s pledge to undo legislation (which Lapid had pushed during the previous government) establishing “equality of burdens” between ultra-Orthodox Israelis and the rest of the population in areas such as military service. He promised to unleash a citizen army to picket MKs who had previously supported this legislation and other measures the new coalition opposes.

If and when this government falls, Lapid wants to be ready—with a fleshed out domestic and foreign policy agenda that rests on a solid elite “infrastructure” and widespread public support.