The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Q&A with Israeli politician Yair Lapid, Netanyahu’s main challenger

Israeli politician lashes out at the media (Video: Office of Yair Lapid)
Placeholder while article actions load

JERUSALEM — As things stand today, Yair Lapid might just be the only person in Israel who could viably challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the leadership.

A former journalist who once anchored Israel’s most popular television news show and the son of a former Israeli minister, Lapid heads a party called Yesh Atid (There is a Future), one of the largest opposition factions in the Israeli parliament.

For more than six months, surveys have suggested that Lapid could give Netanyahu a close race, if elections were held today.

[Netanyahu sweeps to victory in Israeli election]

Since Netanyahu’s election in 2015 to a historic fourth term, Lapid has stressed a message that embraces the Israeli center on domestic issues but talks tough on Palestinians. He says he supports a Palestinian state. But he wants to build a wall around it.

At a briefing this week with foreign journalists, Lapid challenged a reporter who asked whether Israeli leaders were “deluded” in thinking they could talk about democracy when Israel has enforced a military occupation on the Palestinians for nearly 50 years.

Speaking in English, Lapid responded that unlike the Palestinians, “who call Jews pigs and monkeys,” Israel makes sure that human rights are protected. “Why don't you go to Gaza or the West Bank and ask them about woman's rights, the rights of the gay community, the rights of Christians?” Lapid said.

He went on to blame the international media for perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by discouraging the Palestinian leadership from making concessions necessary to make peace.

We sat down with Lapid recently in his office in Israel’s parliament. This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity:

Do you believe Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a partner for peace?

Many times, President Abbas has proved not to be a partner for peace. Three times over the past 15 years, the Palestinians were offered more than 90 percent of what they are asking for and three times they said no. They must understand they are not going to get everything they want.

The Palestinians have this mantra, that Abbas is the last of the Tunis generation [those who founded the Palestine Liberation Organization], that he is the last person capable of signing a deal with Israel. But it is the other way around — because he is part of the Tunis generation, he cannot sign anything.

Isn’t the same true about the Israelis? In Israel, the same people have been saying the same things about the same peace deal for 20 years. Do we need to see a change in Israel before peace can be reached?

Since the Oslo accords, there have been 11 rounds of bilateral talks and all of them came out to the same nothing. It was the same people, saying the same things to each other.

If we are going to do this, then there needs to be a different mechanism. Since last September, I have been pushing a new concept, a regional conference that will include many of the players who are involved anyway — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the gulf states.

And, we need to start with Gaza. Gaza is a simpler deal. There are no Jews in Gaza, no holy sites. We will not talk to Hamas, but with regional players present, we will have moderators to talk through. If we start in Gaza, we will have a win. I think the entire area needs to see progress.

Could having Donald Trump in the White House change the situation for Israel vis-à-vis reaching a deal with the Palestinians?

I think there is an incredible window of opportunity. We know the basic strategy of the Palestinian Authority and of President Abbas has collapsed. They have been saying for a while that there is no need to negotiate with Israel, that they just need to make sure international pressure on Israel gets tougher and tougher.

But the new U.S. administration has already announced that this strategy is not going to work with them, and I think that if Israel went back to the negotiation table now, it would do so from an interesting position of power that it did not possess in recent years.

Netanyahu boasts about how Israel is now getting along with the rest of the world; he says he is “optimistic” about relations he has cultivated in Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia, but surely the only relationships that really matter diplomatically are those with the United States and Europe?

Without criticizing the prime minister, I will say there is a difference between how you handle trade policy and foreign policy. Trade policies deal with everyone everywhere in the world, but foreign policy is subjective. It is dependent on three places — Washington, Brussels and international institutes. This is where the game is played, so if you are in the game, then you have to make sure you are on good terms with all these three.

[Israel’s Netanyahu seeks to make new friends in historic first visit to Africa]

I think we could do better and should do better. Of course, the kind of alliance we have with the U.S. is unbreakable. We have had a rough couple of years, but now, Israel has to return to its bipartisan stature. We are grateful for support we’ve had from the Republican Party, but the Democratic Party is just as important to us.

Read more:

Q&A with former Israeli peace negotiator Tzipi Livni: ‘Israel needs to decide its own policy’

Israel says there’s never been a more right-wing U.S. ambassador than Trump’s pick