Six years after his predecessor last endorsed a two-state solution before the United Nations General Assembly, Yair Lapid revived an Israeli prime ministerial commitment to that vision in his debut address on Thursday — and presented both the Palestinians and his own Israeli electorate with a clear choice.
In 2016, from the same platform, Benjamin Netanyahu did not merely pledge his commitment “to a vision of peace based on two states for two peoples,” but he went so far as to invite Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to address the Knesset and offered “to speak to the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah.”
Yet the advance word that Lapid was going to confirm on the world stage his longtime belief that a peaceful Palestinian state alongside Israel constitutes the best prospect for the futures of both peoples had provoked a domestic political storm more than a day before he even got up to speak.
And it wasn’t only Netanyahu who castigated him, but members of Lapid’s own outgoing coalition — many of whom he will need as allies if he is to have any chance of retaining power.
Delivered 40 days before Israel goes to the polls for the fifth time in three and a half years, Lapid’s carefully crafted, passionate and sometimes personal address featured many passages aimed at world leaders and at viewers across the region.
But his vision of flourishing, mighty Israel aggressively protecting its security while proactively seeking reconciliation will be meaningless if he cannot keep Netanyahu at bay on November 1. And Netanyahu is polling at 60-61 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
Therefore Lapid strived to distinguish himself from the Likud leader, for a domestic audience as well as a global one, by endorsing the two-state goal on whose basis the Jewish state was revived by the United Nations 75 years ago.
Well aware that the current Palestinian leadership is unable and unwilling to take up the challenge, and that this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, he was nonetheless trying to persuade some of the undecideds watching back home — and perhaps most especially the undermotivated Arab Israeli electorate on which his election prospects may hinge — that his approach is worth turning out to support. “Israeli Arabs are not our enemies,” he said early on. “They are our partners in life.”
Confronting his hosts, denouncing Iran
No sooner had Lapid left the General Assembly podium than Netanyahu, atypically kept away from the venue at which he became so frequent a presence, issued a video calling the speech “weak” and “defeatist,” castigating Lapid for returning Palestinian statehood to center stage and doing nothing to stop Iran.
Eschewing Netanyahu’s use at the UN of pictures and cartoons to reinforce his arguments, Lapid in fact was robust in his Iran comments, confrontational in his denunciation of his UN hosts’ stances and decisions, and brusque in making plain to the Palestinians and their advocates that their independence will not be achieved if it remotely threatens Israel’s.
In world leader mode, Lapid lamented the poisoning of democracies “by lies and fake news,” warning that “reckless politicians, totalitarian states and radical organizations are undermining our perception of reality.”
He gave a powerhouse example of that toxic strategy being used against Israel, citing the case of a “three-year-old Palestinian girl,” Malak al-Tanani, ostensibly killed with her parents in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza last May. In fact, the “heartbreaking image” was of a girl from Russia; “Malak al- Tanani doesn’t exist.”
From there he moved to the wider effort to delegitimize Israel — “in the media, on college campuses and on social media,” and, he fumed, at the UN itself, among the dismally reliable majority of nations that oppose Israel in most every forum, to the delight of the liars and distorters.
“The question is not why they do it, but why are you willing to listen,” Lapid said accusingly, depicting that willful international blindness as an iteration of antisemitism for which he provided two definitions: “Antisemitism is the willingness to believe the worst about the Jews, without questioning,” he said resonantly. “Antisemitism is judging Israel by a different standard than any other country,” he went on, using a more familiar formulation.
“I am not a guest in this building,” he added, in another potent upbraid. “Israel is a proud sovereign nation and an equal member of the United Nations. We will not be silent when those who wish to harm us use this very stage to spread lies about us.”
Turning to Iran, Lapid referenced the current protests there against the regime, sparked by the death in morality police custody of Mahsa Amini, and protested the world’s silence as “young Iranians are suffering and struggling from the shackles of Iran’s regime… [and] cry for help on social media.”
He mocked the “industry of hate” that sees the regime manufacture huge quantities of the flag of an Israel it loathes, solely in order to burn them. But he also warned gravely that “if the Iranian regime gets a nuclear weapon, they will use it.”
Differing with the US approach, just as he publicly differed with the visiting US President Joe Biden in July, Lapid argued that only a “credible military threat” will keep Iran from the bomb. Only once Iran is deterred would it be time “to negotiate a longer and stronger deal with them.”
But if the world continues to choose the easy option — chooses “not to believe the worst, despite all the evidence to the contrary” — then Israel will act, he made clear: “We have capabilities and we are not afraid to use them. We will do whatever it takes. Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. We will not stand by while there are those who try to kill us. Not again. Never Again.”
‘Put down your weapons’
Lapid had begun his speech with an account of Israeli and Arab foreign ministers at the Negev Summit in March defying a deadly terrorist attack that took place in Hadera as they were meeting, and putting out a joint statement “condemning the attack and sanctifying life, cooperation and our belief that there is a different way.” Soon after his address Thursday night, in yet another bloody confirmation of the pervasive hostility, eight Israelis were lightly hurt in a terror attack near Modiin.
When he came back to the Palestinian issue, and to terrorism, toward the end of his address, he attempted to reshape the Israel-Goliath/Palestinians-David narrative, reminding the watching world that Israel lives in a predatory neighborhood — with Syria’s murderous regime, Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon and Hamas-run Gaza on its borders — where to let down your guard is to put your existence in peril.
“You can ask us to live according to the values in the UN Charter, but you cannot ask us to die for them,” he declared.
“My father was a child in the [Budapest} Ghetto, my grandfather was murdered in a concentration camp,” Lapid went on, mentioning his family history, as he often has. He then also spoke, atypically, of his autistic daughter Yaeli, whom he had to wake in the middle of the night last May “and run down with her to the bomb shelter, because missiles were exploding above our home. All those who preach about the importance of peace are welcome to try running to a bomb shelter at 3 a.m. with a girl who does not speak.”
“Put down your weapons and prove that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are not going to take over the Palestinian state you want to create,” he urged the Palestinians, and then summed up the simple narrative of Israeli would-be peacemakers: “Put down your weapons, and there will be peace.”
Debunking the myth of Israel and the Jewish people as illegitimate colonizers, alien to the region, as perpetuated by PA President Mahmoud Abbas among others, Lapid insisted: “We are not going anywhere. The Middle East is our home.”
But Israel is also strong enough, he said, to confidently seek peace with “every Muslim country — from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia.” Echoing the Declaration of Independence, he promised: “Our hand is outstretched for peace.”
Netanyahu, his election rival, has moved further and further from the two-state vision in the past six years. Far from inviting Mahmoud Abbas to the Knesset these days, he has lately worked to bolster the representation of the Religious Zionism party, whose leader Bezalel Smotrich would ban Mansour Abbas and other current Arab Israeli politicians from parliament.
Lapid’s was the speech of an Israeli centrist, of an interim prime minister who knows it will be a struggle to muster a parliamentary majority in an Israel that has gradually shifted rightward, but perhaps not as far as Netanyahu has.
He championed his country, he underlined its power, and he offered cooperation in this first address at the UN General Assembly. Forty days from now, we’ll see if the Israeli electorate makes it a one-off or a habit.