Crowd-Pleaser

05.21.13

How Lapid Reflects The Ill-Defined Israeli Center

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid said the following: “I used to have so many opinions before I learned the facts.”

He was talking about his transition from television to politics, and I have to say, that is a remarkable sentence from a man who was very recently elected based on his pre-fact opinions—particularly, but not exclusively, as he continues to function in a fact-free zone.

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Demonstrators march through the streets to protest against Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid's budget cuts on May 18, 2013 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)

Thousands of Israelis protested the entire array of austerity measures in Lapid’s budget earlier this month, largely because they are so at odds with the promises he appeared to be making in his election campaign. As my colleague Gershom Gorenberg noted yesterday, among Lapid’s many fanciful notions is the idea that forcing hunger on the children of detested sub-cultures is an effective way to mainstream their parents into society—and given his position in the government, Lapid’s budget and opinions about the people it’s meant to serve are a pretty important indication of his ability to function without the constraints of reality.

But Yair Lapid is far more than just Finance Minister. He’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s greatest threat in the political arena, he reflects the views of Israel’s somewhat ill-defined “center” (non-religious Jews who, when polled, say they want to be shed of the occupation but are pretty sure the Palestinians are entirely at fault for the failure of the peace process), and as head of the second largest party in the Knesset, he’s instrumental in setting policy and shaping public opinion.

Thus, we must listen closely to his opinions about a wide variety of things, particularly (but not exclusively) regarding the conflict with the Palestinians (which, no matter how hard Israeli officials try to distract us, remains the country’s most salient, most defining concern)—and as I have noted before, a time or two, Lapid is very much wedded to creating his own reality.

For instance, in his interview with the Times, he said that a two-state peace is “crucial” to Israel’s future, but rejected curtailing settlement activity and/or any possibility of a shared Jerusalem, while also apparently questioning whether Palestinians really want a state, anyway.

He furthermore called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas—who has supported a two-state peace since 1977 and led Palestinian negotiations in Oslo in 1993—“one of the founding fathers of the victimizing concept of the Palestinians.” Speaking with the Israeli outlet Yediot in the course of the same media blitz that brought him to the Times, Lapid also pronounced Abbas “still not psychologically ready for an agreement with Israel, either partial or full.”

I don’t know—is Yair Lapid ill-informed? Under-educated? Spectacularly dim? Lying through his sizeable teeth? Or some combination of those things?

Short of the statement that a two-state agreement is crucial (a line that’s now de rigueur for all wannabe national leaders of the Jewish State), there is nothing even remotely reality-based in any of the above.

The Palestinians will not agree to an agreement if Israel doesn’t stop building on their land; they will not give up their generations-long dream of a national capital in their holy city of Jerusalem; they do, in fact want a state; Abbas is the man who’s been trying to tell Palestinians that they may have to give up on a full return of their refugees (and, frankly, one doesn’t need to invent a narrative of victimization—the Palestinians are, among many other things, victims); and Abbas has been “psychologically ready” for a two-state peace since Yair Lapid became bar mitzvah. That’s the truth, not whatever fatuities the Finance Minister holds in his mind and sends out through his mouth.

Lapid does get one thing very right, however: He reflects that ill-defined Israeli center, the one that wants peace but doesn’t seem to understand the role its country plays in the perpetuation of war.

A brave politician, a bold politician, an honest politician would start telling his or her people the truth. Such a politician would do everything within his or her not-inconsiderable power to finally help shift the discourse away from Israel’s own “concept of victimization” and toward an honest reckoning of responsibility and possibility.

As Noam Sheizaf notes in +972:

The public simply doesn’t want to deal with the Palestinian issue in any meaningful way…. There is an almost instinctive, little-spoken understanding that both alternatives—both one-state and two-state solution—are inferior to the status quo. Talks regarding the “unsustainability” of current trends seem very abstract. So far, the occupation seems to be the most sustainable thing this country has known.

Politicians understand this, and those who don’t lose elections (see: Livni). Lapid certainly understands.

Whether Lapid is ignorant, dumb, or dishonest about the facts doesn’t change the one thing about which he is very clever: Public opinion.

He doesn’t want to be brave, or bold, or honest. Yair Lapid wants to be elected. And he’s not going to risk that for anything so inconsequential as the truth.