Israel may have a right-wing prime minister, but Naftali Bennett is not positioning Israel’s diplomatic priorities. That portfolio rests with Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who is scheduled to take over the premiership as part of a rotation arrangement with Bennett in August 2023.
Bennett is busy micromanaging Israel’s COVID response, which includes constantly changing regulations and border closures.
With Bennett handling domestic issues, Lapid and other key coalition partners are laying the groundwork for Israel to return to a two-state paradigm that had been effectively frozen under the previous government. And in doing so, they are giving ammunition to parties and institutions that delegitimize Israeli land claims in the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria.
In a briefing with members of the media on Monday, Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz said: “In the coming year, we expect to see resolutions and processes with the potential to cause significant damage, and there is real danger an official U.N. body will determine Israel is an apartheid state.”
Lapid’s foreign-policy agenda
Lapid followed Ushpiz by emphasizing the need for Israel to re-enter into direct negotiations towards the creation of a Palestinian state.
“Without diplomatic dialogue with the Palestinians, this [threat of being designated an apartheid state] will only grow more severe,” stated Lapid. “We need to be cautious of a situation in which the world says the Palestinians are promoting diplomatic talks and Israel is refusing.”
Lapid, as the Jewish state’s top diplomat, could have taken the opportunity with Israeli journalists to craft the case regarding Israel’s legal, historic and moral claims to its homeland, and to lay out a strategy for refuting disingenuous claims. Instead, the foreign minister projected the views of the United Nations, Western European diplomats and the Biden administration back to Israelis, who have learned the hard way the dangers of entering into negotiations or withdrawing from territories.
Negotiations and withdrawals in the last 30 years have led almost exclusively to rejectionism, radicalization, terror, full-blown intifadas, rockets and war.
Lapid acknowledged that his intended negotiating partners are actively promoting delegitimization campaigns against Israel. He does not speak of negotiations in terms of land for peace.
“On one hand, they talk about promoting talks, and on the other hand, they file petitions against Israel at [the International Criminal Court at] The Hague and pay salaries to terrorists. This is the challenge the foreign ministry faces, and it is headed in our direction.”
While Lapid believes strongly in a two-state solution, he acknowledges that there are difficulties in launching a diplomatic process due to his complicated political arrangement with a handful of right-wing coalition partners.
“I think it’s good that today’s foreign minister and the person who will serve from August 2023 as prime minister is a man who believes in the two-state solution. But even after the rotation, the coalition’s makeup will remain the same, and I will adhere to every agreement that I made with my partners,” said Lapid.
For Lapid, keeping his fragile coalition intact through the upcoming rotation is of paramount importance.
Lapid’s secondary consideration is maintaining his integrity with the Palestinian leadership. “There is no reason for me to delude the Palestinians and open a diplomatic process that doesn’t have a coalition behind it. … That would damage our credibility, which is important,” said Lapid.
Lapid’s credibility with diplomatic partners may have already taken a hit.
The Biden administration is placing significant pressure on Israel to return to the two-state paradigm. The administration wants Israel to provide concessions to Palestinians after four years of receiving concessions from the Trump administration, while the Palestinian Authority was consistently punished for repeated intransigence.
America wants Israel to even up the score. Atop a list of concessions, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Biden are pushing Israel to reopen a recently shuttered consulate to Palestinians in the heart of Western Jerusalem.
When Netanyahu was still prime minister, he told an insistent Blinken that the consulate would not be reopened under any conditions. Lapid, by contrast reportedly told Blinken upon entering the foreign ministry that the consulate could indeed be reopened before realizing the move would incite negative blowback from within his own government, from the opposition and from the pro-Israel community around the world.
Seeking to help ensure the fragile government’s stability, Lapid quickly asked Blinken to postpone the reopening until after the passing of a state budget. Yet even after the budget’s passage, Lapid, together with Bennett, has continued to push off the request, leaving the Biden administration in an unhappy limbo.
The current coalition has a few wild cards—members with wavering loyalty. Chief among them is Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Gantz was slated to become prime minister as part of a rotation arrangement he signed with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Instead of honoring the deal, Netanyahu refused to pass a state budget in order to trigger early elections.
The elections backfired on Netanyahu and ultimately led to the installation of a coalition headed by Bennett and Lapid. Gantz, who was in line to become premier, plays a distant third place role in the government.
Still intent on becoming prime minister, Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, has been trying to boost his diplomatic credentials. In the past few months, he has twice met with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, and this week met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Following his trip to Jordan, Gantz said one of the purposes was “creating the horizon” to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by establishing a “just and comprehensive peace based on the two-state solution.”
Just one week prior, Gantz hosted Abbas at his home in Rosh Ha’ayin, his second meeting in 2021 with the Palestinian head. Gantz is the highest-level Israeli official to meet publicly with Abbas since Netanyahu met Abbas at the White House in 2010.
P.A. funding workarounds
Gantz tweeted following his meeting that he and Abbas had “discussed the implementation of economic and civilian measures, and emphasized the importance of deepening security coordination and preventing terror and violence—for the well-being of both Israelis and Palestinians.”
As part of the meeting, Gantz offered Abbas a number of Israeli gestures, including a NIS 100 million ($32.2 million) loan; VAT, import-tax and excise-duty benefits; more than 1,000 permits for Palestinian businessmen entering Israel by car; dozens of VIP permits for P.A. officials; and the legalization of the status of 9,500 undocumented Palestinians and foreign nationals living in Judea and Samaria, and the Gaza Strip.
The loan is the second one that Israel has provided. Back in August, Gantz met Abbas and offered a NIS 500 million ($160 million) loan to the P.A.
The loans are troubling because they intentionally circumvent a law passed in 2018 which prohibits Israel from transferring customs duties it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. The law in Israel was passed following the passage of the Taylor Force Act in the United States which prevents U.S. aid to the P.A. on the basis of its “pay for slay” terror incentivization program.
Each year, the P.A. pays more than $350 million in ongoing monthly pensions to terrorists in Israeli prisons and the families of so-called “martyrs” who died in the act of attempting first-degree murder. The figures account for an estimated 7 percent of the P.A.’s total budget.
The loans, approved by Bennett, represent a dubious and highly controversial workaround of an Israeli law meant to ensure that the funds Israel transfers do not end up directly in the pockets of terrorists and their families.
Did Bennett approve the meetings?
Regarding the meeting at his home, Gantz stated: “The prime minister was updated ahead of time. He can think as he thinks. I’m doing my job.”
Bennett confirmed that he approved the meeting with Gantz. “Regarding the defense minister’s meeting, it was done with my full approval. The defense minister spoke to me in advance, and I saw no reason to ban it,” Bennett told reporters.
“There are different views in the government and diverse [ideologies] from both left and right,” said Bennett. “The defense minister is responsible for security in Judea and Samaria, and therefore, there is a reason to conduct such a meeting.”
Bennett may have had little choice but to approve of Gantz’s meetings. By contrast, Netanyahu would likely have been able to enforce strict coalition discipline. That the question was posed to both Gantz and Bennett raises red flags regarding Bennett’s ability to control his cabinet members.
And while Bennett can lean on Gantz’s call for security coordination as an excuse for approving the meeting, the same cannot be said for meetings between Abbas and junior ministers in the coalition.
In the height of a pandemic, Israel’s Health Minister and far-left Meretz Party chairman Nitzan Horowitz found the time to meet with Abbas in Ramallah in April. At the time, it was the highest-level Israeli meeting with Abbas in a decade.
Following the meeting, Horowitz said that Meretz was trying to “keep the two-state solution alive.” Horowitz later tweeted together with a picture of himself and Abbas that “we have a common mission: to maintain hope for peace, based on a two-state solution; because there is no other solution.”
The meeting was also attended by fellow Meretz Party member and Minister for Regional Cooperation Issawi Frej.
Frej, who is Israel’s second-ever Muslim minister and a former secretariat of the left-wing NGO Peace Now, said in a statement after the meeting that “we’re here to advance the two-state solution, to say that you are our partner.”
Following Frej’s meeting with Abbas, the minister told The Forward, “The Palestinians are my people, okay? But this is my state, and we have a common fate,” adding, “that’s why I want to do my best to give the Arabs a reason to be part of the Israeli society.”
In November, Frej participated in the biannual Ad Hoc Liaison Committee meeting in Oslo that recruits international financial support for the P.A. Leading up to the meeting, Frej said Israel’s “message to international donors will be to provide more aid to the Palestinians.” While in Oslo, Frej met with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and Palestinian Finance Minister Shukri Bishara.
Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Labor Party member Nachman Shai is also an avid proponent of the two-state solution. And while he has not met with Abbas, Shai has been employing the same diplomatic pressure tactics as his colleague Lapid.
On the sidelines of the recent Israeli-American Council summit in Florida in December, Shai told The Times of Israel, that “it may not be the case in Israel, but [in the U.S.], the Palestinian issue is at the top of young people’s agenda, and I’m constantly being told that we’ll continue to pay a price in public opinion if we fail to solve it. Even if we do manage to solve the conflict, there will still be all kinds of criticism against Israel. But I do understand that we have to advance the Palestinian issue. We cannot ignore it, we cannot give up on it.”
In Shai’s estimation, the views of young Jews in America should serve to at least partially guide Israel’s policy vis-à-vis Palestinians.
Israel’s president and former chairman of Israel’s left-wing Labor Party, Isaac Herzog has held several phone calls with Abbas and is similarly using his post to advance Israeli diplomacy.
Netanyahu’s call for two states
Proponents of the current government can rightfully argue that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his explicit support during a speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009 for a “demilitarized Palestinian state that would recognize the Jewish state.”
At the time, he called upon the P.A., saying, “Let’s begin negotiations immediately without preconditions.”
Much has changed since Netanyahu first took office in 2009. At the time, Netanyahu was replacing failed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who had offered to withdraw from 93 percent of Judea and Samaria, and evacuate Jewish settlements there for the creation of a Palestinian state. Abbas infamously rejected the offer.
Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan address also took place during the first year of the Obama administration, and it was clear that America’s priority was to push a two-state solution on Israelis and Palestinians that resembled Olmert’s offer.
In 2015, at the end of Obama’s term, Netanyahu stated that his Bar-Ilan speech was “no longer relevant” due in large part to continued Palestinian hostility towards Israel.
‘Peace to Prosperity’ vision
Netanyahu did however agree in principle with the terms of the 2020 Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” Mideast peace plan, which also called for the future creation of a Palestinian state.
Yet there are several key differences between the 2020 plan and the 2008 Olmert offer. The plan would not have required Israel to uproot a single settlement and called for full Israeli control of the Jordan Valley, along the Eastern border with Jordan.
Additionally, there were significant conditions placed on Palestinians. To become eligible for an independent state under the plan, the Palestinians were first required to demonstrate complete financial transparency, stop all forms of incitement against Israel and eliminate their sordid “pay-to-slay” terror incentivization payment schemes.
There was also a timeline. Had Palestinians not met the conditions or refused to accept the smaller state being offered within four years, the opportunity would have permanently evaporated. At that point—assuming Trump remained in office—Israel would have had American backing to declare sovereignty on the entirety of the disputed territories.
Incentivizing normalization, penalizing delegitimization
The policy of the Trump administration was simple to understand: Do not reward terror; only reward good behavior. This is why the Trump administration broke off diplomatic contact with the P.A., reduced payments to the P.A., expelled the PLO Mission in Washington, D.C., and shuttered the consulate to the P.A. in Western Jerusalem.
In contradiction to all the warnings of longtime two-state promoters, the four years of the Trump administration were among the quietest years for security in Israel since the signing of the ill-fated Oslo Accords that started the two-state track.
Today, Israel is much stronger than it was when the Oslo Accords were first signed in 1993, as well as stronger than it was during the failed negotiations of 2000 and 2008. Israel has developed into a regional economic, military and technological superpower, with many more allies than it had before, including among Muslim majority nations.
As such, Israel’s bargaining position is significantly stronger than the more desperate situation the Jewish state found itself in during the run-up to Oslo. And Israel can better stand up to international pressure.
In the past four years, Trump and Netanyahu set out to prove that the Israeli-Arab conflict could be solved from the outside in, by incentivizing those who wished to normalize relations with Israel, and penalizing parties that sought to delegitimize the Jewish state.
Yet now, both the Biden administration and the Bennett-Lapid-Gantz administration are walking back the significant gains of the previous administrations, with nothing but increased terrorism in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria to show for it.
Instead of projecting strength and resolve, Israel is back to projecting weakness and guilt.
And while Bennett can effectively hold off formal negotiations, he can do very little to keep the left-wing colleagues he chose to sit with from laying the groundwork for a return to the two-state follies of previous left-wing governments.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.