(October 12, 2021 / JNS) When Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid received the mandate from then-President Reuven Rivlin to form a government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was once again unable to form a parliamentary majority, he succeeded in luring right-wing stalwart Naftali Bennett away from his natural political partners. He did this by offering Bennett the only position that would get him to break away from the “national” camp: that of prime minister.
The move was a political masterstroke. Despite having promised over and over again not to partner with Lapid, Bennett grabbed the opportunity to take Israel’s top seat. He did so even with a rotation arrangement in place, which has Lapid scheduled to take the reins in August 2023.
The government that emerged from the above deal was the farthest-left possible alignment that could have been constructed. With every last left-wing member of Knesset, it has a razor-thin, one-seat parliamentary majority that, for the first time in Israeli history, relies on an anti-Zionist Arab party.
Lapid currently serves as alternate prime minister—with veto power over government initiatives—and as foreign minister. The unwritten arrangement between him and Bennett is that the latter will handle domestic issues, while the former will deal with foreign policy.
With Bennett and most Israelis focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines and restrictions, Lapid has been free to operate without much attention or criticism from the media or general public. Since assuming office, however, he has overseen a number of highly questionable diplomatic moves.
In June, Israel voted at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to condemn China for its treatment of the Uyghurs. Jews should undoubtedly be the first to express deep concern over grave human rights abuses. Yet, the Israeli government should know better than to give any credence to a forum that unfairly singles out Israel for censure more than all the world’s countries put together.
Secondly, Israel should think twice about angering an ascending global superpower that has taken a keen interest in investing in Israeli innovation. Israel had a unique opportunity to turn to the Chinese and say, “The U.S. and Europeans are asking us to vote against you in the UNHRC. Rather than doing that, we will gladly abstain. In return, we ask you to abstain, or better yet, protect us at the UNHRC.” Instead, Israel voted against China in a meaningless resolution, without getting anything in return.
Why did Israel do it? Because the United States asked Israel to do it.
Eager to kiss up to the Biden administration, Lapid allowed his foreign-policy establishment to make an amateur error that Netanyahu would never have made.
Crisis with Poland
Lapid recently caused a major diplomatic crisis with Poland, a key ally on a European continent where support for Israeli policies is often hard to find. Poland advanced a key piece of legislation essentially ending restitution claims for those who lost property in World War II. While the law does strike sensitive nerves among Jews, Israel’s creating a crisis with Poland is senseless.
Poland and other Viségrad countries provide Israel with a powerful counterbalance to Western European powers that often vote against and censure Israel in international forums over bogus claims of human rights abuses against Palestinians, and the building of suburban housing for Jewish residents in Judea and Samaria.
Developing strong alliances with the Visegrád and other states in Central and Eastern Europe was a major diplomatic achievement of the Netanyahu era. In particular, Poland has proven itself to be a strong ally of Israel, especially in security matters, including military aviation.
The Western European nations seek to weaken Israel’s alliances within the Visegrád bloc. Lapid, who is eager to improve ties with the more progressive Western Europe, was happy to oblige. As a result, another opportunity to gain diplomatic advantages from an ally in important world forums was lost.
Turning Netanyahu into a scapegoat
Across Europe and the United States, Lapid has been selling the message that the left’s criticism and distancing of itself from Israel is Netanyahu’s fault. It’s a message that Western Europeans and the Biden administration have been happy to hear.
Turning Netanyahu into a scapegoat is certainly a convenient ploy, but simply doesn’t ring true. Netanyahu was responsible for a dramatic increase in strong Israeli diplomatic relations, from world powers to unlikely alliances in previously unthinkable corners of the world.
Israeli diplomatic gains during the Netanyahu era were in no small part a reaction to a dramatic shift in American policy during the Obama administration.
Obama calls for daylight
At the very outset of former President Barack Obama’s eight-year tenure, Obama made clear that more “daylight” was needed between America and the Jewish state. Worse yet, Obama began abandoning allies in the Middle East, while aligning with malign actors.
In 2011, Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threw longtime ally Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak under the bus during national protests, calling for the protector of the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt to step aside. Obama then threw his support behind Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi.
Within weeks, the Israel-Egypt peace accord was in tatters, with its terms being repeatedly violated by Egypt. Had current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi not taken over in what could easily be termed a coup, the peace agreement would have completely fallen apart.
Curiously, just over a year earlier, Obama had thrown his support behind the mullah-led regime in Tehran during the country’s similar Green Revolution protests. The result: Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remains in power, as his country terrorizes the region.
In 2012, Obama called Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan one of his “most trusted friends” on the international stage. Erdoğan has continuously sabotaged relations with Israel, including his tacit support for the infamous Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla incident in 2010.
With regard to Israel directly, Obama pressured Netanyahu into freezing construction in Judea and Samaria. Perhaps the Obama administration’s signature move vis-à-vis Israeli presence in the biblical provinces of Judea and Samaria was in 2016, through U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, which called Israeli settlements “a flagrant violation of international law.”
The resolution was brokered behind the scenes by then-Secretary of State John Kerry with the U.S. abstaining during the vote.
A critical but unreliable ally
Throughout the Obama administration, Netanyahu correctly recognized that America was a close and critically important, yet unreliable, ally. And the best way to counter destabilizing American moves was to diversify Israel’s diplomatic portfolio.
This led Netanyahu to develop strong relations with world powers, including China, Japan, India, Russia and Australia; with Central and Eastern European nations; with former members of the Soviet Union; with South American countries; with states across Africa; and even with Muslim-majority nations that had previously refused to engage in diplomatic relations with Israel.
Today, U.S. Democrats blame Netanyahu for ruining relations with their party. In particular, they cite Netanyahu’s “original sin” of addressing a joint session of Congress in 2015 to speak out against the dangerous Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal with Iran. But Netanyahu’s speech was delivered out of sheer conviction, and in the belief that the JCPOA posed an existential security threat to Israel.
Despite the speech, and following it, Obama’s cold relationship with Netanyahu, the U.S.-Israel alliance grew increasingly stronger. Led by former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, a senior Netanyahu adviser, security cooperation and intelligence-sharing between the two nations reached unprecedented levels. More impressively, in 2016, Dermer negotiated a $38 billion memorandum of understanding (MoU) directly with the Obama administration to provide Israel with critical security assistance for 10 years.
The MoU provides immense benefits to the United States. For one thing, it further solidifies and enhances Israeli intelligence-sharing. For another, it stipulates that 100 percent of the funds are required to be spent in the United States, which constitutes a major infusion of money into America’s defense industry.
Trump administration gains
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s direct opposition to the JCPOA bore significant fruit. It led to Republicans opposing the deal, and ultimately to former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the pact.
Further, the speech may well have served as a contributing factor in the recent Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Underlying the economic and commercial benefits of the Accords is a strategic defense alliance with Israel against a common destabilizing Iranian threat.
Relations between Israel and the United States reached all-time highs during the Trump administration. Security cooperation and intelligence-sharing further increased. America recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital and moved the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv, which caused other nations to follow. America recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights and reversed its harsh position on settlements.
The Trump administration defunded the Palestinian Authority over its multi-million-dollar “pay for slay” terror-financing scheme; shuttered a Jerusalem consulate dealing exclusively with Palestinian affairs; and expelled the PLO mission from Washington, D.C.
Trump administration members Jared Kushner and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman were key brokers of the Abraham Accords.
A progressive ploy
Netanyahu consistently improved relations with the United States, taking advantage of having a friendly Republican president in the White House. Yet progressives in America conveniently blame Trump for every political problem and seek to penalize Israel, particularly Netanyahu, for working together with the “polarizing” president. Progressives now blame Israel for turning the Jewish state into a partisan political football, when it was they who fumbled to begin with.
Progressive members of Congress, recently opposed special funding to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system, which utilizes powerful technology to intercept and shoot down rockets fired indiscriminately at Israeli population centers. While a funding bill for the Iron Dome eventually passed the House of Representatives, the incident foreshadows what the future of Israeli-American relations may look like once the more moderate, yet aging old guard of the Democratic Party is replaced by new members of its growing progressive “Squad.”
For Lapid, of all people, to blame Netanyahu for ruining relations with America and Western Europe is a disingenuous display of revisionist history.
Bennett’s baseless Bibi-bashing
Meanwhile, Bennett is in lockstep with Lapid in promoting his progressive, Netanyahu-bashing, foreign-policy agenda. In nearly all of his meetings with dignitaries, from U.S. President Joe Biden to outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and even from the podium at the United Nations, Bennett speaks of a “new spirit” in Israel meant to present a stark contrast to his predecessor.
Bennett repeatedly retells the story of how he heroically joined forces with Israel’s left to form a government with himself at the helm, to break Israel’s multi-year coalition stalemate. Prior to the U.N. speech, Bennett released talking points to the Israeli press, specifically noting that his address would be markedly different than those of Netanyahu’s, and wouldn’t rely on any visual devices to drive home any of his points.
In reality, the only major marked difference in his performance was that the hall was nearly empty during his address, and none of his points made international headlines.
The Biden foreign-policy agenda
Meanwhile, the Biden administration, whose foreign policy is led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, is proving to be just as dangerous to Israel as the Obama administration.
Since taking office, Biden’s primary foreign-policy initiative has been to re-enter the JCPOA, even as Iran continues to destabilize the Middle East in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza, and continues to openly pursue illicit nuclear weapons.
In a surprise move, America hastily withdrew from Afghanistan, leading to an immediate Taliban takeover, exhibiting similarities to the Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt in 2011 and further destabilizes an already chaotic region.
Re-engaging the Palestinian Authority
Now the Biden administration is pressuring Israel to re-open the shuttered consulate for Palestinian affairs, despite warnings that doing so is illegal under American law, following the implementation of the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 2018, which was originally passed in a near-unanimous bipartisan vote in 1995.
Israel would be required to approve the reopening. According to multiple reports, Bennett and Lapid have agreed to its reopening, but have asked America to delay the move until the fragile government can pass a formal budget in November.
Lack of coalition discipline
Bennett did not mention the Palestinians in his recent U.N. address and has stated that he has no interest in meeting with P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas. Yet he appears to have little to no control over the nation’s diplomatic affairs.
This past week, during her recent trip to Abu Dhabi, Interior Minister and Bennett ally Ayelet Shaked told The National that Israel had no intention of creating a Palestinian state throughout the duration of the current coalition, including the time in which Lapid is prime minister.
Shaked was then harshly criticized for her trip and interview by an “anonymous minister,” who many Israeli commentators have speculated was Lapid.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited Abbas in Ramallah this past month—the highest-level Israeli government official to do so in years. A second delegation to Abbas included far-left Meretz Party head, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, and Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej. Following both visits, Bennett’s office was forced to respond to charges that the delegations had not been coordinated with his office.
This week, Lapid stated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be ignored “forever and ever,” and the belief is that he is simply biding his time until he slides over from the foreign minister’s chair and prime minister-in-waiting role into the seat currently occupied by Bennett. At that time, he will no longer have the restraints of a right-wing—albeit weak—prime minister at the helm of the otherwise left-wing government and will be able to re-engage a currently defunct diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
It will be telling what Lapid and Blinken discuss, let alone agree to, in their meetings. Permitting the United States to reopen a consulate to Palestinians in Jerusalem, and passively allowing America to return to the JCPOA without a major international protest, would be just the latest in a growing list of Lapid-Bennett follies that harm critical Israeli diplomatic and national security interests.
Alex Traiman is the managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of JNS.
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