Tel Aviv — Yair Lapid, the dark-horse surprise of last week’s election, is expected to put a universal draft for the ultra-Orthodox at the top of the agenda for the new government.
But will Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, Israel’s coalition kingmaker with 19 seats in the Knesset, also help restart peace negotiations with the Palestinians after a four-year impasse?
Unlikely, say Israeli foreign policy analysts.
Lapid’s decision to make restarting talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a condition for joining the government has boosted expectations in Israel and the world that he will moderate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy.
But few expect that Lapid will want to waste political capital that he’ll need for domestic reform on a push to unfreeze a longstanding stalemate over settlement expansion.
“It’s not [Yesh Atid’s] agenda. It’s not what Netanyahu wants, and he’s the prime minister,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. “There’s no peace process to reignite.” Yesh Atid, Pinkas continued, “doesn’t have an original out-of-the-box idea to reignite the peace process. And the Palestinians are split. It’s not as if there’s a peace agreement on the table and they have to sign on the dotted line.”
Pinkas added that Lapid’s demand regarding the reopening of peace negotiations is too vague. That vagueness, he suggested, would make it relatively easy for the prime minister to get off the hook by reverting to his arguments from the first term that it’s the Palestinians who want to evade talks with Israel by demanding a freeze on settlement construction.
And despite speculation that Lapid’s role as the leading coalition partner could position him as Israel’s next foreign minister, many believe he will choose a cabinet portfolio with power over issues related to his domestic agenda, such as the housing or interior ministries.
Still, Yesh Atid appears to be taking its potential foreign policy role seriously and has reached out to foreign diplomats to inquire about what would be necessary to reach a compromise between Netanyahu and Abbas on reigniting talks.
The party has also gotten advice from outgoing Israeli politicians who recommend that Lapid insist that he get veto power over approving new construction in the West Bank, said Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.
Pinkas suggested that construction in the controversial E-1 land tract — which the international community and dovish Israelis say could doom the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state — might figure as a red line that could force Lapid out of a coalition.
“He will be the only one who will be able to play the role of restraining the settlement construction,” Zalzberg said.
A week after the election, the only coalition option that has been ruled out is a government led by Lapid supported by left-wing, centrist, religious and Arab parties.
Net anyahu said this week that he aspires to form a broad-based coalition that is widely expected to include Yesh Atid and the Jewish Home party, which represents Israel’s nationalist Orthodox constituency. It’s unclear how Lapid and ultra-Orthodox parties like Shas and United Torah Judaism can function in the same coalition if it ends conscription exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox.
Israeli papers have been filled with seemingly contradictory reports that the two haredi parties are looking to compromise, but also that they plan to form a united bloc of 18 seats as a counterweight to Yesh Atid.
Experts believe that it will take years before the army can accommodate the ultra-Orthodox soldiers’ religious demands. Yesh Atid members said that removing the blanket service exemption for ultra-Orthodox 18-year-olds would also encourage those not drafted to go out into the workforce because they would no longer have to use yeshiva study as a refuge from the army.
Yesh Atid also has a plan for lowering housing prices that calls for the building of tens of thousands of new rental units in major cities over the next few years.
The party is also demanding that the next cabinet cut the number of ministers nearly in half to save public money.
In an interview with Channel 2 news, Lapid said the peace process comes after domestic issues.
“My first commitment is to the Israeli middle class,” Lapid said. “If we have an equal share of the burden, a small cabinet free of ministers without portfolio, and we solve our housing problems … these things strengthen the peace process. The peace process requires a healthy, functioning Israeli society.”
An examination of Yesh Atid’s foreign policy platform reveals an effort to target the center of the Israeli political map. It supports the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state while Israel annexes large settlement blocs like Ariel and Maaleh Adumim.
The platform also opposes the creation of new settlements in the West Bank while allowing for the continued “natural” expansion of existing settlements — a longtime policy of successive Israeli governments that has failed to defuse Palestinian and international criticism.
Most controversially, the platform calls for keeping Jerusalem united under Israeli sovereignty. Some see that plank as evidence that the party is unrealistic about the peace process, but others consider it the opening position for talks.
“Yair Lapid represents the resurrection of the Israeli center, which is where a majority of Israelis naturally belong,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. “Politically, Yair also represents the center in his endorsement of a two-state solution while remaining deeply wary of Arab intentions.”
The Yesh Atid list is made up mostly of rookie politicians with no experience or record of comments on foreign policy. The exceptions are Ofer Shelach, a journalist close to Lapid who has written in favor of concessions to the Palestinians,
and Yaacov Perry, a former Shin Bet chief who supports talks with the Palestinians and suggested the party’s position on Jerusalem would evolve.
Yael German was elected as mayor of Herzliya, a Tel Aviv suburb, on the left-wing Meretz’s slate, but has no national political experience.
“These are all new people,” said Gershon Baskin, a prominent peace activist. “All the people on the [Yesh Atid] list have not been in politics before, and we don’t know what their positions are. I’m assuming most of them are not educated on issues concerning the peace process.”
Baskin said that he hopes that Abbas will invite Lapid and his party members for a visit at some point in the future. At the same time he expressed concern with Lapid’s recent statements on Jerusalem.
“Yair Lapid has said ridiculous things like, ‘Once we negotiate, if we’re tough in our negotiations, I’ll be able to convince the Palestinians to give up Jerusalem,’” Baskin said. “It’s a sign that he’s completely out of touch with the negotiations and the peace process.”