“Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”—attributed to Albert Einstein.
“I used to have so many opinions before I learned the facts.”—Yair Lapid, The New York Times, May 19, 2013.
“When it comes to Gaza, don’t dream about demilitarization or economic miracles.”—Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and veteran State Department Mideast negotiator, in Foreign Policy, July 22, 2014.
Almost eight years ago, much to his chagrin, I wrote an op-ed on the then-Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid. It began: “Yair Lapid is the most dangerous man in Israeli politics today, a good-looking, charismatic, overconfident fool, an affable ignoramus with no intellectual gravitas, devoid of moral principle, but with the gift of a silver tongue and the unmistakable—and largely undisguised—penchant for demagoguery and dictatorship.”
Sadly, this caveat is no less relevant today than it was then—arguably, more so.
Confounding “cause” and “effect”
Thus, earlier this month, at an international conference on counter-terrorism, Lapid, now foreign minister, floated a policy proposal for dealing with the perennial problem of Gaza. Although there was scarcely anything new about the idea, appearing to be little more than “old goods in an equally old wrapping,” it garnered considerable media attention.
Depending on one’s perspective of Israel’s mainstream media, this is either somewhat surprising … or preeminently predictable.
Unsurprisingly, the parameters of the Lapid proposal were entirely within the guidelines of accepted wisdom on Gaza, prescribing that, somehow, the enduring violence in and from the luckless enclave is due to the poor economic conditions with which it is afflicted. Of course, little reflection is required to grasp that precisely the opposite is true. After all, in Gaza, it is not penury that begets the violence, but the violence that begets the penury.
But then, reflection does not appear to be Lapid’s core expertise. Indeed, his public appearances have been afflicted by some of the most embarrassing faux pas, mortifying gaffes and bumbling blunders—which, for some reason, have left his public image largely unscathed. But more on that mystifying enigma—and its disconcerting implications—a little later.
Stating the painfully obvious
But for the moment, let’s focus on the substance—for want of a better word—of the Lapid initiative for quelling the violence emanating from, and fermented in, Gaza.
In mid-September, the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs put out a 2,000-word statement, setting out the parameters of Lapid’s alleged “vision.” In it, he states the painfully obvious: “The policy Israel has pursued up until now hasn’t substantially changed the situation … We need to change direction.”
Accordingly, he asks: “What should we do?”—and answers: “… [W]e need to start a large, multi-year process of economy for security.”
In his view, his initiative is a “more realistic version of what in the past was called rehabilitation for demilitarization.”
In an attempt to forestall any criticism, which he apparently foresaw, he preemptively parried: “There will be experts who tell you that this plan has no chance. The answer is—we never tried. For too long, the only two options on the table have been conquering Gaza or never-ending rounds of violence … [A] serious proposal of “economy for security” in Gaza has never before been put on the table.”
Lapid is wrong—on both counts.
Unoriginal and unrealistic
Firstly, his proposal is hardly original—i.e. “We have never tried [it].”
On the contrary, it has been raised repeatedly in the past—at least as far back as 2014—chiefly by failed and forgotten politicians. It was in 2014 that then-Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz suggested a financial package of $50 billion, together with independent seaport access. Likewise, several other ministers, including former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and former senior security officials, such as ex-Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin, have incorporated this notion in their political declarations and speeches.
Indeed, in August 2014, Lapid himself touted the idea, calling for ensuring that the economic “rehabilitation [of Gaza] takes place alongside [its] demilitarization.”
Although I have many points of disagreement with senior Carnegie fellow David Aaron Miller, he has written a particularly incisive critique, entitled “The Endgame in Gaza.” In it, he derisively dismisses the attempts to resolve the Gaza question by promises of economic development in exchange for Hamas laying down its weapons. Wistfully, he muses: “I wish I had a dollar for every time some well-intentioned soul approached me with some new Marshall Plan for Gaza or the Middle East.”
“Meanwhile back on Planet Earth …”
Secondly, Lapid’s proposal is not even remotely “realistic.”
Indeed, Miller, somewhat acerbically, prefaced his review of the inherent deficiencies of Lapid’s “more-goodies-for-less-guns” school of thought with a sardonic barb: “Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth …,” thus relegating them to the realms of ridicule.
Detailing the reasons why none of these schemes seem even “remotely possible,” Miller pointed out that they call on Hamas to repudiate its very raison d’être. He wrote: “Hamas would have to abandon its 35-year reason for being, give up armed struggle, accept Palestinian Authority rule and become a political party without achieving the end of Israel’s occupation, let alone statehood.”
But not only ideological obstacles render the idea of “rehabilitation for demilitarization” unworkable. Thus, as Miller explained: “Someone would also have to supervise the area close to the Israel-Gaza border inside the Strip in order to ensure that Hamas didn’t continue to tunnel …”
But, he cautioned, to ensure that, “[a]n acceptable international force would have to be organized to identify, collect and destroy Hamas’s weapons. All other smaller resistance groups, including Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, would need to be defanged … [and] the international community—in an uncharacteristic display of focus and commitment—would need to step up with tons of money and technical assistance.”
In assessing the feasibility of such an outcome, Miller was unequivocally caustic and blunt: “In other words, forget it.”
Plumbing the depths of absurdity
But the absurdity of Lapid’s proposal goes beyond that outlined by Miller. Indeed, he suggested that Israel initiate the undertaking of major infrastructure projects within the Gaza Strip, not only without engaging Hamas, but to undermine its stature in Gaza!
Thus, he underscored: “I’ll say it clearly—this isn’t a proposal to negotiate with Hamas. Israel doesn’t speak to terror organizations that want to destroy us.”
However, beyond vague references to the “international community,” he offered no clue as to who would comprise the stout-hearted entity that is to challenge the brutal Islamist terror group, indeed goad it, by overtly trying to erode its public support.
Accordingly, he asserted: “The electricity system will be repaired; gas will be connected; a water desalination plan[t] will be built; significant improvements to the health care system and … rebuilding of housing and transport infrastructure will take place …”
Then, oblivious of prevailing realities on the ground, he blithely prescribed: “The international community will use its influence over Hamas [yeah, right—MS] to assist in the efforts to stop Hamas arming itself. It will work to strengthen efforts to prevent smuggling and an economic oversight mechanism will be put into place to prevent resources going to Hamas.”
And then, with unbounded—and equally unfounded—optimism, he determined: “In exchange, Hamas will commit to long-term quiet.”
Lapid in la-la land?
Lapid disclosed: “The purpose of the process is to create stability on both sides of the border … the people of Gaza need to know that Hamas terrorism is what’s standing between them and a normal life.”
According to him: “Advancing a formula of economy for security will force Hamas to explain to the residents of Gaza why they live in conditions of poverty, scarcity, violence and high unemployment, without hope.”
He insisted, “We need to tell Gazans [that] Hamas is leading [them] to ruin. No one will come and invest real money … in a place from which Hamas fires and which Israel strikes on a regular basis.”
Accordingly, he urged: “It’s time to put the pressure on Hamas. It’s time to cause the residents of Gaza to pressure Hamas, because they understand what they are missing out on as a result of terrorism, and understand how much they stand to gain if that terrorism stops.”
So there you have it, the purported “rationale” of Lapid’s template for a masterly stroke of statesmanship for dealing with Gaza in a nutshell: Assemble an unspecified force to disarm Hamas—or at least curtail is armaments and their use against Israel, thereby effectively annulling its very raison d’être—while initiating large economic projects, whose specific purpose is to denude the influence of the Islamist organization.
Gee, what could possibly go wrong?
Two terribly tenuous tenets?
Lapid’s regurgitated formula rests on two terribly tenuous tenets. The first is that, as a collective, the Palestinians can be lured into some kind of peace arrangement with Israel—or, at least, into durable non-belligerence—by the promise of enhanced economic well-being.
The second is that Hamas rule is maintained only—or, at least, chiefly—by force of arms and lacks significant public support, and thus, could be displaced by wide public dissent if seen/portrayed as an impediment to the achievement of enhanced living standards.
Neither premise is valid.
As for public support for Hamas, a recent Palestinian poll is starkly unequivocal! “It states: “If new presidential and parliamentary elections were to take place today, Hamas would do relatively well compared to Fatah …”
According to the poll’s findings: “This is particularly true for a presidential election … Most importantly for Fatah, findings show a significant increase in the demand for Abbas’[s] resignation, with almost 80% making the demand, an unprecedent[ed] … finding …”
But if there is little sign of eroding public support for Hamas in favor of the Fatah-dominated P.A., there is similarly scant evidence that the prospect of improved economic conditions is likely to generate such erosion.
Terribly tenuous (cont.)
Indeed, further findings of the same poll reflect realities no less discordant with Lapid’s pivotal notion of the prospective allure of higher living standards becoming a lever to promote anti-Hamas sentiments.
Thus, when asked to designate what they considered the most vital Palestinian goals and the main problems confronting Palestinians today, respondents gave the following answers: “44 percent believe that the first most vital Palestinian goal should be to end Israeli occupation in the areas occupied in 1967 and build a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with east Jerusalem as its capital. By contrast, 32 percent believe the first most vital goal should be to obtain the right of return of refugees to their 1948 towns and villages, 12 percent believe that the first and most vital goal should be to build a pious or moral individual and a religious society, one that applies all Islamic teachings and 10% believes it should be to establish a democratic political system that respects freedoms and rights of Palestinians.”
Significantly, there is nary a mention of a desire for a better economy, the very lynchpin of the Lapid plan, and which purportedly would induce public opposition to Hamas, paving the way to the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip and the cessation of terror attacks from within it. Hmmmm …
Lapid mimicking Lieberman
Given all of the above, it is hardly surprising that the Lapid plan was roundly rejected by Hamas. Thus, Hamas spokesperson Hazim Qasim stated bluntly: “The enemy has resorted to various proposals … to weaken the resistance, and they did not succeed. Its resort to such a plan indicates its inability to deal with the resistance and our Palestinian people.”
However, it was also the intended beneficiary of the scheme, the Fatah-dominated P.A., which condemned it as gravely misguided. Thus, P.A. Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh castigated it as essentially irrelevant: “Gaza’s problem is political [i.e. not economic—MS]. It is the same problem that all of Palestine faces, including Jerusalem. There must be a serious political process based [o]n international law, to end the occupation and lift the blockade … this would make the reconstruction of Gaza possible and sustainable.”
In other words—as a collective—economics is subordinate to, and contingent on, politics.
But, of course, had Lapid not been afflicted with such ignorance and arrogance—had he not been imbibed with such narcissistic desire to appear original/innovative/creative—he might have realized that four years previously, his coalition partner, one Avigdor “Yvette” Lieberman, had raised an almost identical proposal, based on precisely the same elements as stipulated by Lapid. Indeed, if anything, it was even more explicit.
In it, Lieberman proposed turning Gaza “into the Singapore of the Middle East,” by building a seaport and an airport and by creating industrial zones that would help create 40,000 jobs, if Hamas agreed to demilitarization and to dismantling the tunnel and rocket systems it has built up. Sound familiar?
The Hamas response was swift. Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas official, dismissed it derisively, sneering, “If we wanted to turn Gaza into Singapore, we would have done it ourselves. We do not need favors from anyone.”
Demilitarization: A futile fetish
The fetish with the demilitarization of Gaza is both timeworn and futile. Indeed, it has ostensibly been part and parcel of the Oslowian “peace-process” since its inception.
Thus, those who suggest demilitarization of Gaza today are apparently oblivious to the fact that Gaza is already supposed to be demilitarized under the Oslo Accords, and they give little clue as to why future demilitarization is likely to be any more effective than in the past—or by whom it will be enforced and how such enforcement is to be effected.
Moreover, demilitarization advocates give scant hint as to how a demilitarized regime (Hamas or otherwise) could contend with radicalized and extreme adversaries (domestic—such as Iranian-backed groups like the PIJ—or foreign—such as ISIS-affiliated jihadis in Sinai). Could the unspoken intention be that the Israel Defense Forces will be called on to provide security to the demilitarized rulers of Gaza? Surely not.
Israel’s chief diplomat: A snapshot?
Israel must now come to terms with the perturbing fact that the man charged with the conduct of the nation’s foreign policy is someone with a long and documented history of poor judgment and appalling ignorance, coupled with commensurate arrogance.
After all, Lapid is on record as referring to the 16th-century Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), as a great classical Greek scholar, several centuries BCE, and to Swiss sculptor, Alberto Giacometti, who was born and died in the 20th century (1901-1966), as a Renaissance-period artist.
He was apparently unaware of the differences between “forefathers” (i.e. ancestors) and “four fathers” (i.e. one more than three), or of the fact that the U.S. Constitution was not written exclusively by one man, John Adams. Likewise, he claimed that Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—generally considered the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, only dated from the Spanish Inquisition, rather than from the time of Moses and the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.
More recently, towards the end of 2020, he sneered at the-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise to provide a large-scale supply of COVID-19 vaccines, even accusing him of blatantly lying to the public. According to Lapid, Israel would be last in line for vaccines, behind dozens of Western countries.
Of course, within weeks, Lapid was proven utterly wrong on every count.
With Israeli diplomacy in such “capable hands,” what is there to worry about?
After all, what you vote for is what get!
Martin Sherman is the founder & executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.