(JNS) With just 29 words, from the stage at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, temporary caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid may have completely changed Israel’s fifth election landscape from the first four election cycles over the past two-and-a-half years.
From the podium of one of the world’s largest international diplomatic forums, Lapid stated, “An agreement with the Palestinians, based on two states for two peoples, is the right thing for Israel’s security, for Israel’s economy and for the future of our children.”
To understand the impact of this statement on the Israeli political landscape, it is important to review how Lapid, who has never—yet—come even close to winning an Israeli election as a candidate for prime minister, came to be the one representing Israel on the world stage to begin with.
Israel is soon set to go to its fifth election cycle in less than three years. The first four inconclusive elections all focused on one issue and one issue alone: whether then-reigning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was fit to continue serving as Israel’s premier, amidst a slew of corruption charges that likely would not hold weight in American or other Western courtrooms.
Challengers—including Lapid—argued time and again during the successive campaigns that on major diplomatic and security policy issues, there was virtually no difference from left to right.
Lapid finally succeeded after the fourth campaign to remove Netanyahu from office, despite a landslide 13-seat victory by Netanyahu’s Likud party in the election. Lapid blocked Netanyahu from forming a government by essentially bribing Naftali Bennett with the chair of prime minister, despite Bennett receiving barely 5% of the popular vote, in exchange for Bennett’s defection from his own voter base and the larger right-wing political camp; Bennett also turned back on his repeated campaign promises never to sit with Lapid in a coalition.
Lapid was able to offer the prime minister’s post to his parliamentary colleague Bennett, because he (Lapid) could not come close to forming a majority coalition government with himself at the helm. Bennett took the bait to achieve his personal ambition and became prime minister in a rotation arrangement with Lapid. The coalition they formed included every single left-wing member of parliament; an Islamist, self-proclaimed anti-Zionist party that is an official chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood; and a handful of right-wing defectors that insisted that Netanyahu’s continued rule was a greater threat to Israel’s stability than bringing the left-wing and Islamists into key government ministries, including Foreign Affairs, Defense, Energy, Health, Environment and Transportation.
The coalition members all agreed on one thing: Regardless of their divergent ideologies, the issue of Palestinian statehood would not be raised. Yet despite the coalition agreement, and despite the supposed right-winger Bennett at the helm, it soon became clear that Lapid and his partners were laying the groundwork for a future return to a two-state paradigm.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz—a former party colleague of Lapid’s—and other left-wing ministers including far-left Meretz party members Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg and Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Frej, all met with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, breaking a nearly 10-year boycott by Israeli government ministers, led by Netanyahu.
Gantz even went so far as to host Abbas at his home in Rosh HaAyin, the first time Abbas had traveled for a diplomatic visit inside undisputed Israeli territory in more than a decade. Gantz argued repeatedly that the meetings had to do only with essential security cooperation between Israel and the P.A.
Barely a year after it was formed, the Bennett-led government crashed—as many predicted it would. According to the convoluted coalition agreement, the dissolution of the parliament and Bennett’s subsequent resignation immediately triggered the installation of Lapid as the “caretaker” prime minister until a new government is formed. Lapid has held his temporary post for barely three months. New elections are slated for Nov. 1.
Lapid has embraced every moment of his brief stint as prime minister. He has effectively utilized the caretaker post as the base of operations for his election campaign, seeking to demonstrate to the Israeli public that he is capable of holding the top slot, despite having no security background and little success in brief stints as finance minister or foreign minister.
As caretaker prime minister, Lapid traveled in July to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah II, (who he also met this week on the sidelines of the UNGA). He traveled to France to meet President Emmanuel Macron. He went to Germany to meet Chancellor Olaf Scholz. He hosted U.S. President Joe Biden in Jerusalem. Lapid also launched a three-day military campaign against Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and ongoing anti-terror campaigns in Judea and Samaria.
On the sidelines of the UNGA, Lapid met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, newly minted British Prime Minister Liz Truss, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and others.
All the while, Lapid has been insisting to the public in Israel that Netanyahu—in his 12 years as prime minister—had harmed Israeli relations with the Democratic party, with Western Europe and with America’s large Jewish Diaspora community. For Lapid, and his intended voters, Netanyahu was the only campaign issue.
Yet, following Lapid’s speech at the U.N., a clear difference between Israel’s left-wing and right-wing camps has re-emerged. And it has the strong potential to become the defining issue of Israel’s fifth election cycle.
By officially acknowledging his belief that “an agreement with the Palestinians, based on two states for two peoples, is the right thing for Israel’s security, for Israel’s economy and for the future of our children,” Lapid has changed the election paradigm from “anybody but Netanyahu” with Lapid as the hopeful anybody, back to the issue that has defined the difference between left and right since former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the infamous Oslo Accords in 1993.
The Oslo Accords partitioned the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria into distinct, yet non-contiguous areas of Israeli and Palestinian control, and were meant to lay the groundwork for a formal two-state agreement based on a land for peace paradigm.
Yet, during the 29 years since the accords signing, Israel has learned the hard way that it can never count on receiving peace in return for land. The P.A. has rejected formal offers by former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert to establish a state and well over 90% of the territories in dispute. An Israeli withdrawal from all of Gaza led to a Hamas takeover, and the firing of more than 20,000 rockets at Israeli territory.
And the P.A. continues to incite against Israel. It spends large portions of its annual budget paying stipends directly to terrorists in Israeli prisons, as well as to the families of would-be terrorists that were killed in the act of attempting first-degree murder, in a terror-financing scheme dubbed “pay for slay.” over the past year, Israel has absorbed a noticeable increase in terror attacks.
In addition, the P.A. and its dangerous network of non-governmental organizations lead an international delegitimization campaign against Israel that manifests itself in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions efforts around the world.
Israel’s right-wing politicians, who are by and large more traditional and religiously observant, understand that an Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria, often termed the West Bank, will never lead to peace. Rather, it will lead to the creation of a hostile anti-Israel state in the Jewish nation’s Biblical heartland, that looks more like Syria than Bahrain.
Israel’s left-wing politicians, who are by and large secular and progressive, want a divorce from the Palestinians at any cost, in the hopes that ceding territory and creating a Palestinian state will somehow protect Israeli democracy and end dangerous and false Western claims (authored by the P.A.) that Israel is some kind of apartheid state.
Until now, Lapid, who espouses both left-wing and progressive views, has positioned himself as a “centrist” with the help of Israel’s predominantly left-wing media.
Yet Lapid’s speech clearly identifies him as the leader of Israel’s left-wing, and demonstrates where he and his governing coalition will lead Israel if he is elected permanent prime minister.
Lapid stated in his address that, “despite all the obstacles, still today a large majority of Israelis support the vision of this two state solution. I am one of them.”
Yet a poll broadcast immediately after the address on Israel’s left-leaning Channel 12 news program reported that only 28 percent of Israelis actually favor creating a Palestinian state.
Chairwoman of the far left-wing Meretz party Zahava Gal-On called Lapid’s address a “historic speech,” adding in a tweet that, “Finally, the vision of peace is on the agenda. Meretz will stand to Lapid’s left to turn his vision into a reality. To put an end to the cycle of bloodshed, to end control over millions of Palestinians.”
Meanwhile, members of Israel’s right-wing have railed at Lapid’s controversial remarks.
In a lengthy statement immediately following the address, Netanyahu said, “After the right-wing government led by me removed the Palestinian state from the global agenda, after we brought four historic peace agreements with Arab countries that bypassed the Palestinian veto, Lapid is bringing the Palestinians back to the forefront of the world stage and putting Israel right into the Palestinian pit. Lapid has already said in the past that he is ready to ‘evacuate 90,000 Israelis to establish a Palestinian state.’ Now he intends to give them a state of terror in the heart of the country, a state that will threaten us all.”
Right-wing Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, a former ally of Bennett told Channel 13 that, “most Israelis oppose a Palestinian state.” She harshly criticized Lapid’s speech, insisting that the very coalition agreement which has ultimately led to Lapid’s caretaker reign specifically calls for the issue of Palestinian statehood to be tabled.
Among many other issues that truly do separate Israel’s left and right, the most serious and existential issue dividing Israel’s political camps over the past three decades has now returned to forefront. It may turn into a critical error for Lapid in his slim hopes of defeating Israel’s majority of right-wing voters.
Whether or not Lapid pulls off an election upset, or Netanyahu re-emerges as prime minister, the primary issue facing Israelis during the current election is now one of substance, not simply personality.
Alex Traiman is CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of Jewish News Syndicate.