Episode V: The Guardian of Israel

On July 13, US President Joe Biden is due to land at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. In a change of plans, he will not find Naftali Bennett receiving him on the tarmac, but a new Israeli prime minister, Yair Lapid. The centrist Lapid, Minister of Foreign Affairs for a year, assumes the role of fourteenth Prime Minister of Israel. With the Knesset dissolved, Lapid will play an interim role until a new permanent government can be sworn in after elections on November 1. Israel’s fifth legislative election in less than four years will pit Lapid, four months into his term, against Bennett’s predecessor and Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Political turmoil in Israel has become so commonplace that one would be forgiven for barely noticing it. Indeed, continuity will be the rule in some central aspects of Israeli politics, which means that Biden’s agenda can continue without too much change. This continuity, however, may mask the deeper damage of this ongoing political turmoil to the country. Israel has seen its people turn against itself, its politics centered around the personality of one man – Netanyahu, and an attempt to sideline the fundamental issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

What happened?

That the Bennett-Lapid government survived even a year was something of a feat. It was based on a coalition that stretched from the far right, center, left, and included Ra’am, an Arab party affiliated with part of the Islamic Movement in Israel. The coalition agreed on very little, let alone on Israeli-Palestinian relations, but set itself two main goals: to replace Netanyahu, who led the country in the mid-1990s and again since 2009, and returning Israel to normal governance, including the adoption of a state budget for the first time since 2019. He achieved both goals and embarked on a strong national agenda, but only for one year. His parliamentary majority was too thin to withstand defections, which came mostly from his right flank, among members of Bennett’s own party, who were still ambivalent about forming an anti-Netanyahu government with center and left.

Although it was established with the explicit intention of sidelining the Palestinian issue, the immediate trigger for the coalition’s collapse was directly related to the West Bank: the impending expiration of emergency regulations – in place since many decades – which extend Israeli law to Israeli citizens in the West Bank. These regulations allow Israeli settlers to live under Israeli rule, even though Israel has not formally annexed the territory or extended civilian rule to Palestinians in areas under direct Israeli control. Normally, the Knesset would easily expand these regulations, but with the opposition unwilling to support any legislation, the legal status of Israeli settlers was about to be upended. Bennett anticipated the collapse of his coalition and the lapsing of the regulations by calling new elections, automatically extending the regulations to the new term of the Knesset.

Bennett announced that he was taking a break from politics. Marked by the wrath of the right, which branded him a renegade and relentlessly attacked him, he faced the prospect of a drastically diminished political role. He will soon leave the stage for now – the door is never completely closed in Israeli politics – as a 50-year-old with a line in his resume shared by just 11 men and one woman before him. In the meantime, he will continue to handle the Iranian dossier in Lapid’s interim cabinet.

The more it is the same, the more it changes

When President Biden visits Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia in July, he will find a region in flux, with Israel, a major regional power, increasingly integrated into the regional diplomatic dynamic. Israel’s relations with key Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, with Saudi Arabia in the background, as well as Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, have grown over the of the past year. These dynamics, which began in the background during the Obama years and came to the fore with the Abraham Accords under the Trump administration, will now be embraced by Biden. The alignment includes practical and already operational cooperation on missile defense between Israel and Arab states, which would have seemed fantastic in the past.

Biden will find an Israel eager to advance its deep relationship with the Arab world. While it was Netanyahu who signed the Abraham Accords and used his intimate relationship with the Trump administration to promote them, the opposition at the time largely embraced them wholeheartedly. Indeed, it was actually a member of Lapid’s own party, Ram Ben Barak, who initiated the last Israeli-Moroccan normalization of the opposition, before the process was handed over to official Netanyahu representatives. As foreign minister under Bennett, Lapid convened the Negev Summit, with foreign ministers from the Abraham Accord countries, Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates plus Egypt, and the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Lapid focused on opening new avenues of cooperation, including a new “quad” of Israel, the United Arab Emirates, India and the United States, which will be convened virtually during the visit of Biden.

Lapid differs from Netanyahu, and even more so from his partner Bennett, in his vocal embrace of a two-state solution with the Palestinians and his desire to leverage warming relations with the Arab world to advance Israeli-Palestinian relations. He is not, however, a dove of the left. He is deeply skeptical of the Palestinian leadership’s ability to reach an agreement, or of his own ability to lead any profound change in Israeli policy in the current political environment. Along with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Lapid is likely to continue to make incremental improvements to Palestinian livelihoods, but not try to unilaterally change the reality in the West Bank or Gaza Strip in any fundamental way.

On Iran too, Biden will find continuity above all. Lapid, Bennett and Gantz all share Israel’s widespread concern over Iran’s nuclear program, even if their rhetoric sometimes differs from Netanyahu’s. Where they differ radically from Netanyahu is in their belief that Israel must work closely with the United States – no matter who is in the White House – to counter Iran. And indeed, Lapid stands out for his approach to relations with America, and in particular the Democratic Party. Ideologically and temperamentally closer to the center of American politics, rather than its right flank, he differs significantly from Netanyahu in this regard.

Lapid is the son of a Holocaust survivor-journalist-turned-politician and a novelist mother. A child of the upper middle class and a staple of Tel Aviv nightlife, he became a well-known columnist, songwriter, actor and television presenter. After entering politics and leading his newly formed party to second place in 2013, he was appointed finance minister under Netanyahu, forming a surprising alliance with the right-wing Naftali Bennett party. Starting out as an inexperienced politician, Lapid has earned his stripes and over the past three years has grown into a seasoned and highly capable politician, and now the undisputed leader of the anti-Netanyahu camp.

Is Bibi back?

Bennett served the shortest term as Prime Minister of Israel, shorter even than Ehud Barak’s in 1999-2001. Lapid could soon break that record if Netanyahu wins in November. A Netanyahu victory is a distinct possibility. He’s missed outright victory by slim margins more than once in the last four years. He lost an advantage over Lapid, however. In the past, Netanyahu could always look to another round of elections to stay in power as caretaker prime minister. If the November elections once again prove deadlocked, Lapid will remain prime minister until a new government is successfully formed. In the meantime, Netanyahu’s corruption trial continues. Although Israel’s justice system is notoriously slow, there remains the possibility that Netanyahu could be barred from politics if convicted in the coming years.

Netanyahu is openly relishing the one-on-one campaign against Lapid. While he is an excellent communicator and a disciplined and talented activist, Lapid faces the master of Israeli politics. Yet as interim prime minister, Lapid will have the chance to answer the one question that has always plagued him in politics: does he have the gravity and stature to be the leader? The most important moment of his campaign could come very soon: when, as prime minister, he receives President Biden at Ben Gurion airport.

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