Lapid, not Bennett, is the Israeli leader to watch in Washington
As Israelis and Palestinians map out a post-Benjamin Netanyahu political landscape, much of the attention is naturally focused on the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett.
But when it comes to the growing debate within the Democratic party over US support for Israel's apartheid policies and denial of Palestinian rights, it is the alternate prime minister and foreign minister, Yair Lapid, who merits our scrutiny.
Bennett is not likely to change Israel's policies in any substantive way. Nor is it likely that Lapid will have fundamental differences with Bennett regarding the Palestinians or Iran. These Israeli policies are not consistent with those of the United States, but both men will work to pursue their goals with more care for the relationship with both the Democratic Party and the American Jewish community than Netanyahu did.
"Lapid's highest priority is to get the mainstream of the Democratic party back to its traditional position of unquestioning support of Israel"
On Sunday, Lapid and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had their first face-to-face meetings since each assumed their new offices. Prior to the meeting, Lapid told a group of reports that, "In the past few years, mistakes were made. Israel's bipartisan standing [in the United States] was hurt. We will fix those mistakes together."
He went on to repeat common talking points, but the meaning was inescapable. Lapid's highest priority is to get the mainstream of the Democratic party back to its traditional position of unquestioning support of Israel.
In a thinly veiled shot at Netanyahu's belligerent attitude toward Barack Obama regarding the Iran nuclear deal, Lapid made it clear that Bennett's government would take the same stance but use different tactics. "Israel has some serious reservations about the Iran nuclear deal that is being put together in Vienna," he said. "We believe the way to discuss those disagreements is through direct and professional conversation, not in press conferences."
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Bennett knows very well that his right-wing orientation is not well-suited to healing the partisan breach Netanyahu created. He is therefore pleased to let Lapid be Israel's face to Democrats, while he courts the Israeli right's traditional Republican and evangelical Christian allies.
Bennett, of course, got his congratulatory phone call with President Joe Biden after his government was sworn in, but discussions of substance have been left to Lapid. That suits Biden as well, as he would rather not be drawn once again into the Israel-Palestine issue.
In a recent phone call, Lapid and Blinken agreed that they would not try to resolve Israel's occupation. Rather, they would work to "improve Israeli-Palestinian relations in practical ways." This echoes Bennett's goal of maintaining the status quo but "decreasing the friction" around the occupation.
"Bennett is pleased to let Lapid be Israel's face to Democrats, while he courts the Israeli right's traditional Republican and evangelical Christian allies"
Biden and many Democrats are vague in what they mean by a two-state solution, although they insist that this is the only acceptable resolution to the conflict. Given Israeli claims to all of Jerusalem, its opposition to any recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees, and its massive and, in many areas, irreversible settlement expansion, many find it difficult to reconcile that notion with the facts on the ground. But Lapid has been much clearer.
In his view, a future Palestinian state must allow Israel to enter any time on the pretext of "terrorist plots;" must not include the crucial Jordan Valley, which constitutes some 30 percent of West Bank territory; and, reflecting a virtual consensus of Israel's mainstream leaders, allows Israel to keep all of Jerusalem, ignoring Palestinian refugees. This would amount to a fragmented, tiny, resource-poor state without its capital and, in the most important sense, would not enjoy full sovereignty.
The two-state mantra, when paired with the US and Israel agreeing that there will be no pursuit of that or any solution in practice, will be understood, correctly, by many progressives as a way of maintaining the status quo and continuing to deny Palestinians their rights.
But it will certainly be embraced by centrist Democrats, and likely by some ostensible "progressives" as well. That allows for support of some Palestinian causes, like the recent US statements opposing evictions of Palestinian families in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, while not fundamentally challenging Israel's apartheid regime.
Lapid is well positioned to shore up that support, and Bennett knows it. From Bennett's point of view, it gives him the best of both worlds. He can appeal to his right-wing base by complaining about the pressure he is under from Washington, while Lapid works to rebuild Democratic support and to marginalize the sort of criticism we saw during Israel's recent bombing of Gaza.
Lapid's discussions with Blinken are only the beginning. While they affirmed the connection between Lapid and the conservative wing of the Democratic leadership, equally important was Lapid's discussion with the so-called "Democratic Majority for Israel."
DMFI, which has two board members who recently came under fire for extreme anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic tweets, has been working diligently to counter the growing sympathy for Palestinian rights among both progressive and some moderate Democratic voters.
That sympathy was reflected in a poll last week which found that nearly half of Democratic voters felt that the Biden administration had not done enough for the Palestinians.
While his talk with DMFI leadership was off the record, the group shared that, "Foreign Minister Lapid made clear that a strong US-Israel relationship benefits both countries, is a core strategic asset for Israel, and requires a bipartisan approach, working with both Democrats and Republicans. He noted reinvigorating Israel's relationship with Democrats is one of his central objectives."
Lapid knows well that the current Israeli government is not built to last. He is already acknowledged in Israel as the man who finally brought an end to the cycle of elections and wishes to position himself as well as the man who repairs the damage Netanyahu did to Israel's relations with the United States.
But that damage also opened the space for real debate on US policy in the region and on Palestinian rights. For that space to remain open, let alone widen, supporters of Palestinian rights must make sure Lapid cannot recapture the narrative on this issue.
Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.
Follow him on Twitter: @MJPlitnick
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