'Israel Cannot Absorb 3.5 Million Palestinians and Remain a Jewish and Democratic State'

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid on a pro-Israel Obama and a recalcitrant Netanyahu

Dan Balilty / AP

Last week, I spent an illuminating hour with Yair Lapid, the former Israeli finance minister and now a leader of the opposition. Lapid, a voluble former television broadcaster, is the head of the Yesh Atid party—the name translates as, “There is a future.” This, of course, is a very Jewish thing to name a political party, for a large number of reasons I’ll let you figure out.

Lapid is a leader of the great mass of disillusioned centrists in Israeli politics. He could conceivably be prime minister one day, assuming Benjamin Netanyahu, in whose previous cabinet he served, ever stops being prime minister. Now functioning as a kind of shadow foreign minister, Lapid argues that Israel must seize the diplomatic initiative with the Palestinians if it is to continue existing as a Jewish-majority democracy, and he is proposing a regional summit somewhat along the lines of the earlier Arab Peace Initiative. Lapid is not a left-winger—he has a particular sort of contempt for the Israeli left, born of the belief that leftists don’t recognize the nature of the region in which they live. But he is also for territorial compromise as a political and moral necessity, and he sees Netanyahu leading Israel inexorably toward the abyss.

I spoke to Lapid before a controversy erupted around a new book by Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States. I interviewed Oren a couple of days ago, and will post that interview soon.

Here is an edited version of the Lapid conversation.

Jeffrey Goldberg: OK, you’re the shadow foreign minister now. My question is, why does Israel have this unique ability to send out people into the world who can’t communicate with the world?

Yair Lapid: There’s a joke that says Israel has a lot of people who are very eloquent about Israel’s problems and there are a lot of people in Israel who speak English. The only problem is they’re not the same people.

Goldberg: [Defense Minister Moshe] “Bogie” Yaalon?

Lapid: Did you see what he said?

Goldberg: I can’t keep up.

Lapid: He said at the Herzliya Conference, he said that there’ll be no agreement with the Palestinians in his lifetime.

Goldberg: Why signal this to the world? Why dig a hole? I don’t understand that.

Lapid: Yeah well, I presume he tells himself, “I’m telling the truth the way I see it.”

Goldberg: So my particular concern is the relationship between the United States and Israel, because I think that the fissures, the splits are not superficial. The question for you is, how do you fix it, and how important is it to you that it be fixed?

Lapid: To me, nothing is more important in Israel’s foreign policy than the relationship with the United States. Listen, everyone is looking for substitutions for something that cannot be substituted. Now, the crisis is due to many reasons. I made a rule to myself not to attack Netanyahu in the international press while I’m abroad, so I will say the following—

Goldberg: Only when you’re overseas, or—

Lapid: —When I’m overseas. I just spoke in front of 2,300 good Jews from the American Jewish Committee and I said to them, “You know what? We need to go back to just saying thank you every now and then for a relationship that is the most important thing for Israel.” The fact that the superpower of the world has decided to make us, from all nations, its ally and friend, is not to be taken lightly. And we need to emphasize this. And even if it helps the American administration going into an election, or whatever happens, why not?

So you go into a room and you say, “We really appreciate the fact that you’ve been helping us militarily, in foreign policy, and so on.”

Goldberg: What Obama says constantly is that, “I don’t understand where this is going.” If you believe that the status quo is sustainable, then fine. Keep going that way. But for x, y, and z reasons, the status quo on the Palestinian front is not sustainable. Increasing isolation, and so on.

Lapid: Israel cannot try to absorb 3.5 million Palestinians and remain a Jewish and democratic state. What we need to do is separate from the Palestinians. There is a reason I’m not using the word peace. The majority of Israel says, “You know what? If it’s about peace, we don’t want what [former Israeli President] Shimon Peres used to call the ‘new Middle East.’” And you look at the new Middle East, the one we have, and I’m not very enthusiastic about it. But on the other hand, there are a lot of possibilities that weren’t there before. I’m advocating, among other things, a regional summit, and the fact that the Middle East has changed has also opened up some opportunities.

We have to do something, because time is not on our side. We can’t absorb 3.5 million Palestinians. If we won’t do anything in the next two years or three years, they will come to us and say, “OK, we realize there’s not going to be a Palestinian state. Let’s vote!” If we say no, we’re not a democracy. If we say yes, we’re not a Jewish state. I want to live in a Jewish state.

Goldberg: So far the only thing that saves Israel is shortsightedness in the Palestinian political class.

Lapid: True.

Goldberg: Like tomorrow, they could wake up and say, “Give us the vote in Israel,” and that would precipitate a crisis.

Lapid: And I want my country to have a policy, and it should be proactive. I want it to be Zionist, I want it to be security-oriented.

Goldberg: How would you feel if you were the prime minister who had to evacuate Jews from [the West Bank city of] Hebron?

Lapid: Horrible. Horrible. This is biblical. Abraham’s Hebron. But I also look at Hebron with 800 or 750 Israelis and 180,000 Palestinians, and I understand the difficulty.

Goldberg: So it would be theoretically a sacrifice worth making for a two-state solution.

Lapid: There is an unholy alliance between the Israeli left and the Israeli right about the settlers. Both of them want to say that every settlement is the same. There’s no difference, for example, between Gush Etzion [near Jerusalem] or Itamar [a far-flung settlement near Nablus]. Why? Because the left wants to give away everything, and the right doesn’t want to give away anything. I’m saying, “No, it’s not the same.” In the future, we will not be able to be in Itamar because it doesn’t make any sense, because of where it is. And yes, we’re going to keep the blocs.

Goldberg: There is a perception in the media here—in the White House, too—especially right after the [Israeli] election, that the last election was further proof of a more rightward movement in Israeli politics.

Lapid: There are 80-something seats now in the Knesset of people who are center-right or center-left or center. And we looked at the polls just before coming in here. The last poll we looked at said 71 percent of Israelis said, “We understand the two-state solution is the only solution, and we will be for it if push comes to shove.” After all the necessary warnings such as, “We want security arrangements to be as tough as possible.”

Goldberg: But Bibi won’t do it?

Lapid: As I was saying, I don’t want to criticize.

Goldberg: I’m asking you for analysis, not criticism. It sounds like you gave up on the idea that Netanyahu would be the guy who could make the painful choice.

Lapid: There’s a reason I refused to be his foreign minister.

Goldberg: Did he ask specifically?

Lapid: No. How should I put this? I’ll give you an example. When I was in his government, I came to him more than once with this idea for a regional summit. The response was, “You don’t put leaders in the same room unless you know what the end result will be.” And my response to this response was always, “So why do we need leaders?” I mean, it’s OK when it’s tax treaties, but when it’s these issues, these life-and-death kind of issues? Only leaders can make the huge leadership decisions and lead the people instead of being afraid of them. So it’s an analogy, but the implication is clear. I think Israel needs new leadership. This is why I’m in politics, because Israel is in need of new leadership and new ideas.

Goldberg: I know you don’t want to criticize the prime minister. I get that. But can you explain the prime minister?

Lapid: I’m not a commentator on Netanyahu nor his interpreter. Trying to figure out Netanyahu is a national sport in Israel. I’m not going to do this. The tragedy of this election is that Bibi was not supposed to win. Everybody’s fed up with him, but there was no real competition. I wasn’t running yet, and Bougie [Herzog] was not real competition.

Goldberg: If you had been out of the government and running?

Lapid: No, not enough experience. We’ve polled it.

Goldberg: So you’re in a jam right now. I mean, being foreign minister would help your electoral credibility, but you can’t be foreign minister for this government.

Lapid: No, and besides in Israel if you want to be prime minister you have to come from opposition. It’s one of those things.

Goldberg: A 61/59 split in the Knesset is not a great recipe for long-term stability.

Lapid: And from the 61, we’ve discovered that one was on crystal meth.

Goldberg: That’s exciting.

Lapid: Bibi’s not going to last forever, because if he wanted to last forever, the former government was 10 times more convenient to him. It’s all miscalculation. Right now, of course, he’s all smug and happy with himself.

Goldberg: Let’s talk about BDS [the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel]. I see you’re formulating this as another pillar of your foreign activities.

Lapid: Here’s the simple version. BDS has three circles to it. The inner circle: Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Qatari money, horrible ideas by horrible people, anti-Semites who hate Jews, people who don’t want a Palestinian state alongside Israel, who want a Palestinian state instead of Israel. The second ring: 171 NGOs, mostly from Europe. They came out of the Durban conference in 2001. They’re, at the core, anti-Israel, but more careful in what they say. Surrounding them is a third circle, which is just some heart-bleeding intellectuals, some well-intended progressive people, some people who sign up for this because it, you know, as it always is with political activists, it tells them something nice about themselves ... people who do not know that they are actually being the puppets in somebody’s theater. So when I talk about being more aggressive fighting BDS, it’s first and foremost making sure people understand that they’re being manipulated by forces. I mean, here in the States I’ve been telling people, “Do you understand that this is actually working in the service of the same people and ideas that brought this country 9/11?” This is the most horrible people on Earth. These are the gay-killers, women-bashers, Jew-haters.

Goldberg: Well let me sharpen the question that I’m trying to ask, which is if an Israeli government took the initiative and signaled what you’re signaling, which is, “Look, we might not have a Palestinian state tomorrow, but we have to create conditions on the West Bank for a Palestinian state,” and spoke in that—

Lapid: We don’t even have to go that far.

Goldberg: —manner, wouldn’t that mitigate BDS in some way?

Lapid: I’m trying to help myself by connecting all the dots of the different things I’m saying. Think of this idea of an Arab-Israeli regional summit that you were too bored to ask me about.

Goldberg: You’re such a passive-aggressive Israeli.

Lapid: No, I’m just aggressive. There’s nothing passive about what I said. Anyway, so of course in this third circle that I’m talking about, if there would be a picture from this regional summit in Cairo, with Israelis, Palestinians, Saudis, Jordan, Emirates, the Israeli prime minister, president of the Palestinian Authority—think about the impact of that picture. Think about what this picture would do for the third circle of BDS activists. Think of saying to them, “These ideas you’re promoting, do they promote justice, or do they promote division and further dispute?” So yes, it would be very helpful if there will be any proactive, real try at negotiation.

Goldberg: How do you understand American Jewry now, and its loyalty or affection for Israel?

Lapid: I think that this is becoming an age thing. If you’re 30 years old, or 40 years old, Israel is still doing OK by tradition, by the connection between being a good Jew and being pro-Israel. But we suffer now from two problems. One is the Conservative and Reform communities feel very uncomfortable with this government. The other problem we have is that for young people, we’re not cool to them anymore. We used to be very cool. After the ’67 war, Israel was the coolest thing on Earth. One thing Israelis are not great at is having a very long-term, coordinated effort of a combination of correct policies, good communications, and the ability to work with different organizations, different groups.

Goldberg: Do you think Barack Obama understands Israel?

Lapid: I was in the security cabinet and now I’m on the security committee of the Knesset, so I’m aware of the depth of the military cooperation during his administration, which is the deepest ever. So, yes, I think he’s a true friend to Israel. I think he thinks in a certain context. I mean, he’s got a very clear policy of saying minimum boots on the ground, maximum putting people together around the table, trying to make them talk to each other, which makes sense in a post-Iraqi America.

Goldberg: Do you think he has a proper appreciation for the downside of compromise?

Lapid: Yes, I think he does. But I think we need to do a better job in clarifying how right Israelis are in being really, really cautious about any progress that can be made. They tell themselves, “We did everything the world had ever asked us” in pulling out of Gaza, and so on. When we talk about the Iranian deal, I say, “Do you remember that we are the country that Iran has sworn to destroy?” Not to have a fight with, not to send Hezbollah to shoot missiles at Ben Gurion airport, which is horrible enough. They say, “We want those people to die.” And you know, my father was the chairman of [the Israeli Holocaust memorial] Yad Vashem. In one of his last speeches, he said, “You know what the world is going to do if Israel will be destroyed? They’re going to open an orphanage and send a condolence letter.” And there’s a sad truth to it because it happened before. So I believe this administration is all for Israel. I think they want to be proactive, which is a good thing. I witnessed personally the kind of energy Secretary [John] Kerry brought into the room, and I thought it was a positive energy, so I’m all for it as long as everybody remembers, for us it’s our existence. And no Israeli in his right mind will say to himself, “OK, they probably know more about my destiny than I do.”