After a career as a major television personality, Yair Lapid became the founder and chair of Yesh Atid, Israel’s largest centrist party. A member of the Knesset who serves on its Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, he also served as Israel’s finance minister. In the 2015 elections, Yesh Atid secured 11 seats, confirming its place as a major player on the Israeli political scene. The Jewish Week caught up with him recently by phone from Israel.
Q: What is your reaction to the fact that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attended Shimon Peres’ funeral and that no elected Israeli Arab leader attended?
A: They made a huge mistake. It was an insult to the memory of President Peres and to anyone who is peace seeking in the world. It was also a terrible political mistake because the majority of Israeli Arabs thought they should have been there to pay respects. .
Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged the presence of several world leaders during his remarks at the funeral, he pointedly ignored Abbas. Do you agree with his approach?
I made it a rule never to criticize the Israeli prime minister or the government in the foreign press — including the Jewish press. I will just say that if I were there as prime minister, I would have acknowledged his presence because — if nothing else — out of sheer politeness. I appreciate the fact that he came to the funeral.
Is the Obama administration justified in criticizing Israel’s recent announcement that it will build 300 new homes in the West Bank?
We are a sovereign country and generally I don’t like the idea of other countries — even a great friend and ally like the U.S. — telling us how to run our country. It is OK to discuss [concerns] behind closed doors, but the idea of a Jewish, independent state is that we decide what is good for us. We should cut a deal with the world saying we are willing to freeze settlements outside the big [settlement] blocs in order to build inside them and, of course, in Jerusalem.
A recent opinion poll showed that the Yesh Atid Party would beat the ruling Likud Party by 5 percentage points — 27 to 22. And it showed your popularity growing — 34 percent of Israelis now want you as prime minister compared with 44 percent who want to keep Netanyahu. How do you interpret these results?
I think what has happened is that everyone is drifting to the margins. This has created a totally dysfunctional political system that is in ways, ruled by the extremists. Yesh Atid is offering a pragmatic, centrist, hard-working option that is appealing to the majority of Israelis who are good patriots and who believe in this country and believe internal division is a threat. They are looking for an option in which we can live together with a functioning political system. They are looking at us and we are going to get the job done.
What is your reaction to Germany insisting that Iran recognize Israel before it will restore normal relations?
I was very much against the Iranian nuclear deal. I cooperated with the Israeli government about this, and now … the world tends to think that everything else Iran is doing is kosher. It is still the biggest sponsor of terror around the world. … The fact that the world is not saying anything about it because it is so anxious to do business with Iran is shameful. At least Germany has put on the table its terms for doing business.
What is your vision for Israel?
I want a strong, prosperous country living in peace with its neighbors, a country that is a home for every Jew and is the capital of the Jewish world. Unfortunately, I don’t see many Palestinians on the other side who are willing to understand that they are not going to get everything they want. A lot want a Palestinian state instead of Israel or on the ashes of Israel, and this is not going to happen.
I support the idea of a two-state solution. If I am elected prime minister, I would work for it. Jerusalem will not be divided and will remain the capital of Israel. There would be no [Palestinian] ‘right of return,’ and it [the Palestinian state] has to be demilitarized because we saw what happened with the [Gaza] disengagement. We left the territories in Gaza and left behind 5,000 greenhouses to help the Palestinians create an economy in Gaza. But instead of building schools and factories, they built terror tunnels and are shooting rockets at our children.