By Ramzy Baroud
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid threw a wrench into the works last month, when he declared from the UN General Assembly podium: “An agreement with the Palestinians, based on two states for two peoples, is the right thing for Israel’s security, for Israel’s economy and for the future of our children.”
The statement took many by surprise, including the Palestinian leadership. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has long been addressing the UNGA every September, every time recycling the same speech about how he has fulfilled his commitments to peace and that it is Israel that needs to engage in serious negotiations toward a two-state solution. Abbas again did his part as expected. In his latest speech, he referred to Israel’s “total impunity” and “premeditated and deliberate policies” aimed at “destroying the two-state solution.”
Lapid, like Naftali Bennett and Benjamin Netanyahu before him, was expected to stick to the script: Accuse Palestinians of terrorism and incitement, rail against the UN’s supposed “bias” and make a case for why Israel should be more invested in its own security than in a Palestinian state. Lapid, however, did not go down that route. True, he regurgitated much of the typical Israeli discourse, accusing Palestinians of “firing rockets and missiles at our children” and the like. However, he also spoke, unexpectedly, about Israel’s desire to see a Palestinian state.
Hence, Lapid linked the theoretical Palestinian state to the condition that it does not become “another terror base from which to threaten the well-being and the very existence of Israel.”
Conditions aside, Lapid’s reference to a Palestinian state remains interesting and politically risky. A majority of Jewish Israelis — 58 percent, according to the Israel Democracy Institute — do not support a Palestinian state. Since Israel is embarking on yet another general election — its fifth in less than four years — swimming against Israel’s dominant political current does not initially seem like a winning idea. In fact, the immediate condemnation of Lapid’s statement by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked indicated that the prime minister’s UN comments will be a contentious campaign issue in the coming weeks.
So, why did Lapid utter these words?
To begin with, Lapid is not serious about a Palestinian state. Israeli leaders have used this line ever since the start of the so-called peace process as a way to demonstrate their willingness to engage in a political dialogue under the auspices of Washington, but without going any further. If anything, for 30 years, Tel Aviv — and Washington — have waved the statehood carrot before the Palestinian leadership to win time for illegal settlement expansion and to ultimately cite the Palestinians’ supposed rejection, incitement and violence as the real obstacles to the establishment of such a state.
Lapid’s language — on the Palestinian state becoming a “terror base” threatening “the very existence of Israel” — is entirely consistent with the typical Israeli discourse on this issue.
Moreover, Lapid aimed to upset the predictable routine at the UN. This sees the Palestinians make their case, which is usually supported by most UN members, and Israel go on the defensive. By alluding to a Palestinian state — a day before Abbas made his appeal for full UN membership for Palestine — Lapid wanted to regain the initiative and appear to be a proactive leader with a plan.
Though it may appear that Lapid’s statement was a bad political move within the context of the right-wing-dominated Israeli political scene, this might not be the case. For years, the left and center in Israel have been embattled, as they appeared to have no answers to any of Israel’s external or internal problems.
Contrastingly, the right, along with its growing alliances within the religious and ultranationalist camps, seemed to have the answer to everything. Their answer to Palestinian demands for freedom and sovereignty was annexation. Their answer to Palestinian protests against home demolitions in occupied East Jerusalem was more home demolitions, mass-scale destruction and a widening of the circle of expulsions.
Unable to stop the tidal wave of the right, Israel’s nominally leftist groups like the Labor Party and centrists like Blue and White moved closer to the right. After all, the right’s ideas, though sinister and violent, were the only ones that seemed to be gaining traction among Israeli voters.
However, Israel’s political dichotomy grew larger, as expressed in the stalemates of the last four elections, starting in April 2019. The right failed to manage stable coalitions and the left failed to catch up. Lapid and his Yesh Atid party hope to change all of this by presenting a potentially stable center-left coalition that can offer more than mere opposition to the right’s ideas, visions and plans.
Though a Palestinian state is hardly a popular idea among most Israelis, Lapid’s target audience is not just Israel’s left, center and possibly the Arab parties. Another target audience is the Biden administration.
US President Joe Biden and his Democratic Party, which remains at least verbally committed to a two-state solution, are facing very difficult times ahead: November’s midterm elections, which could cost them dearly in both the House and Senate, and the subsequent presidential election in 2024. Biden is keen to present his administration as one of military strength while having a vision of peace and stability. Lapid’s words about a Palestinian state were meant to entice the White House, which will likely engage with Lapid’s party — and possible coalition government in the future — as a “peacemaker.”
Finally, Lapid is aware of the impending transition in the Occupied Territories. As an armed intifada is growing in the northern West Bank, Abbas, 87, will soon leave the scene. One potential successor, Hussein Al-Sheikh, is particularly close to Israel’s security apparatus, thus completely mistrusted by most Palestinians. The talk of a Palestinian state is, therefore, meant to give whoever is to follow Abbas the political leverage that would allow them to stave off an armed revolt and take the Palestinians into another futile hunt in search of a political mirage.
It remains to be seen if Lapid’s strategy will pay dividends; whether it will cost him in the coming Israeli elections or whether his words will evaporate into the dustbin of history, as have so many such references by Israeli leaders of the past.