columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Lapid, don’t count on courting Democrats

Israel’s new foreign minister ought to be rethinking the kind of American bipartisanship that’s even attainable, let alone desirable.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in the Knesset, on June 21, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in the Knesset, on June 21, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Ruthie Blum. Photo by Ariel Jerozolomski.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, former adviser at the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is an award-winning columnist and senior contributing editor at JNS, as well as co-host, with Amb. Mark Regev, of "Israel Undiplomatic" on JNS-TV. She writes and lectures on Israeli politics and culture, and on U.S.-Israel relations. Originally from New York City, she moved to Israel in 1977 and is based in Tel Aviv.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid seems pleased about his meeting on Sunday in Rome with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Like his American counterpart, he belongs to the self-described “center” of a political camp pressured by a far-left minority.

What this means is that while neither is openly hostile to either country, both cling to failed premises about the nature and purpose of international relations. More specifically, Blinken believes that the best way to prevent the powers-that-be in Tehran from building the bomb is through a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or some version of it.

Lapid, who was against then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018—and accused then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu of pressuring him to exit the deal without coordinating with Europe—now says he has “serious reservations” about resuming its current iteration. Still, he hastened to reassure Blinken that the new Israeli government “believe[s] the way to discuss [Israeli-American] disagreements is through direct and professional conversation, not a press conference.”

This was a not-so-veiled reference to Netanyahu, whose tenure as the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history ended on June 13. Less than a month earlier, the now-former premier ostensibly embarrassed Blinken during a joint talk with reporters in the wake of the ceasefire that ended “Operation Guardian of the Walls,” Israel’s 11-day war against Hamas and terrorist infrastructure in Gaza.

“I hope that the United States will not go back to the old JCPOA, because we believe that that deal paves the way for Iran to have an arsenal of nuclear weapons with international legitimacy,” said Netanyahu unabashedly, despite sharing the stage with Blinken.

“Whatever happens, Israel will always reserve the right to defend itself against a regime committed to our destruction, committed to getting the weapons of mass destruction for that end,” he declared.

The very different message that Lapid wanted to convey to Blinken was that Washington could count on his tact and obeisance—traits that Netanyahu supposedly has been incapable of exhibiting towards Democrat-run administrations. It’s an accusation that Lapid and his “center-left” compatriots have been hurling at Netanyahu for years, both when Barack Obama was in the White House and during Trump’s term in the Oval Office.

Never mind that Netanyahu masterfully navigated the former by conceding when he felt it prudent to do so—as in the case of his being pressured to apologize to and compensate Turkish tyrant Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for the Mavi Marmara affair—and sticking to his literal and figurative guns where Gaza and Tehran were concerned. Forget that his warm embrace of the latter was not only mutual, but fully deserved.

Leave aside the momentous Abraham Accords between Israel and its Arab neighbors, which wouldn’t have been possible with a Democratic administration in the United States and a “peace-camp” government in Israel. The reason for this is simple: Both continue to insist that Mideast peace cannot be achieved without a solution to the Palestinian problem, despite evidence to the contrary. And each sees appeasement as the key to keeping Iran from pursuing its pernicious hegemonic aims.

In this respect, Lapid and Blinken are on the same page.

Nevertheless, Lapid doesn’t squander any opportunity to chant his mantra about “repairing” Israel’s “damaged” relations with the Democrats. You know, the bond that Netanyahu is said to have severed by “taking sides” with Republicans in general and Trump in particular.

It’s a slogan he sang last week, as well. In a video call with the board of directors of the Democratic Majority for Israel, he announced that reinvigorating Israel’s relationship with Democrats is one of his central objectives.

Naturally, none of those taking part in the conversation would or did acknowledge that it’s Republicans who overwhelmingly support Israel, while the Democratic Party has grown increasingly anti-Zionist. Nor did any of them note that Democratic members of Congress who oppose the growing anti-Semitic sentiment in their ranks cower before the progressives.

Apparently, it’s scarier being called a “systemic racist” and an “Islamophobe” than allowing oneself to be bullied by a bunch of radical ignoramuses. Yet it wasn’t fear that drove 73 House Democrats to send a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to “reverse the previous administration’s abandonment of longstanding, bipartisan United States policy,” welcoming his “initial release of development and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians” and encouraging him to “formally withdraw the previous administration’s ‘peace plan,’ which paved the way for possible unilateral annexation of territory.”

No, the June 23 missive was a voluntary initiative specifying a series of anti-Israel policies that Trump canceled and that Biden should resume. One is that settlements are “inconsistent with international law.” Another is that the “West Bank and Gaza Strip” should be referred to in official U.S. documents as “occupied.”

With “friends” like these in the Democratic Party, Lapid ought to be rethinking the kind of American bipartisanship that’s even attainable, let alone desirable. He’s hardly likely, however, to backtrack on one of his flagship allegations against Netanyahu.

The question is whether he agrees with the Democrats’ bent or is oblivious to it.

It’s clearly a combination of the two.

When a draft of the Democratic Party platform was released last July—four months before the U.S. presidential election that ushered out Team Trump—then-opposition leader Lapid told i24News in an interview that it constituted a “triumph of the moderates” over the “more radical, progressive voices” whose positions on Israel he admitted were cause for concern.

To be fair to apologists, the document included clauses about the party’s belief in “a strong, secure and democratic Israel” with Jerusalem (“a matter for final-status negotiations”) as its capital, and opposition to “any effort to unfairly single out and delegitimize [the Jewish state], including at the United Nations or through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement.”

But it simultaneously emphasized the party’s intention to “call off the Trump administration’s race to war with Iran, and prioritize nuclear diplomacy, de-escalation and regional dialogue.” It also asserted that the JCPOA is the “best means to verifiably cut off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb … [which is] why returning to mutual compliance with the agreement is so urgent.”

Finally, it displayed the party’s penchant for moral equivalence between Israel and the Palestinians, juxtaposing “incitement and terror” with “settlement expansion.”

During the above interview, Lapid again waxed poetic about Israel’s need to “stay bipartisan when working with the United States”—a campaign slogan that he spent the past four rounds of Knesset elections repeating.

Ironically, he wouldn’t be where he is today without playing the bipartisanship card at home. Indeed, had he not cobbled together a coalition of ideologically disparate parties under an “anybody-but-Bibi” umbrella—and allowed the head of the right-wing Yamina Party, Naftali Bennett, to have first dibs at the premiership—he’d be gearing up right now for a fifth round of elections.

The chance that the motley crew in question will last long enough for Lapid to take the reins from Bennett in two years is slim. But whether or not he makes it to the Prime Minister’s Office in other than his current “alternate” capacity, he is certain to be confronted by an inconvenient truth: No matter what somersaults he performs, it will be Republicans who remain in Israel’s corner, not Democrats.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”

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