In two years’ time, Benjamin Netanyahu will become the longest-serving prime minister of Israel. According to recent polls, only one man can stop that from happening. If elections were held today, Yair Lapid would win, those polls show. Lapid has only been in politics for five and a half years, during which time he has held the post of finance minister. He is now the leader of the centrist faction of the opposition in Israel, having founded the Yesh Atid (There is a future) party in 2012 after a successful career in television.
I hope the kind of attitude left radical parties are showing toward Israel is the result of complete ignorance
Lapid, born in Tel Aviv in 1963, entered politics with the aim of stamping out corruption and ensuring that the country’s ultra-orthodox Jews – some 10 percent of the population – carry out the same obligations as the rest of the population, military service included. Now he is being held up as Israel’s representative of a centrist wave that is putting an end to traditional two-party systems in many parts of the world. Meanwhile, he has thrown himself into what is particularly difficult terrain in Israeli politics: foreign policy. On a recent visit to Madrid organized by the NGO group Monitor, he participated in an event denouncing the use of public money in Spain to promote boycotts in Israel, and visited Spain’s national Congress.
Politically, Israel is more polarized than ever. Is there space for a centrist party?
This is not an Israeli phenomenon, it’s global. The most obvious example is Macron in France, but it is also happening with Ciudadanos in Spain. In this struggle between the populism of the left and the populism of the right, nobody wins. It’s clear that after the US election and Brexit, people have been telling themselves that we need to wait a minute and look at this because protest movements are not good at governing in institutions. What the center as a concept is offering is above all responsibility and functioning institutions.
But the fact remains that a majority of voters still prefer the Likud. What can you offer to Israelis that Benjamin Netanyahu cannot offer them?
First, an end to “us versus them” politics. I have been telling the people of Israel, the same way Emmanuel Macron is telling the people of France and Angela Merkel, to a point, is telling the people of Germany, that this is a diversion. There’s only “us.” My aspiration is to unify the country. Not to create a uniform state, but to unify it. And I think this [concept] is also spreading around, right now, more in Europe than anywhere else.
Islamic terrorists use a vocabulary they have stolen from Martin Luther King and Karl Marx
Israel faces a huge challenge in terms of its image overseas. What can you do to improve this image?
Israel has done a very bad job in Europe in the last few decades because we did not make up for the amount of money and efforts that were put into Europe by the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] movement [against the country]. For too long, Israeli foreign policy was saying: “If we argue with them in public, we will only give them free publicity so let’s pretend it’s not happening.” But it’s happening. There is a lot of money coming in, a lot of Spanish money as well – money from the Spanish taxpayers that was supposed to go to humanitarian aid but instead, it goes to support propaganda of terrorists groups.
These groups say the solution to Israel’s problems is very easy: make peace with the Palestinians.
I am a great supporter of the two-state solution. I am ready to give them [the Palestinians] a state tomorrow! I only have one condition: I don’t want my people to be killed. Israel is a bit post-traumatic since 2005 and the disengagement from Gaza. We did everything the world had asked us to do: we dismantled the settlements in Gaza, the army was withdrawn, we left them the entire Gaza Strip and we even left them 3,000 greenhouses to start building an economy. And you know what? They demolished all 3,000 greenhouses. They built training camps for the Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and to date they have fired more than 1,500 rockets on Israeli citizens.
You were very critical of Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Is Donald Trump’s arrival at the White House good news for Israel?
I am still critical of the Iran deal. In terms of Trump, we don’t know yet. His administration is a riddle. President Trump had a fantastic visit to Israel. We really liked that he decided to start this first international tour in Israel. Emotion counts and it’s very obvious that he feels strongly about the well-being of Israel and the Israelis. There are people in his administration we highly regard as partners for everything, including Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner [charged with spearheading an effort to forge a peace deal between Israel and Palestine]. If you put your son-in-law in charge of something, you must care about the issue. What is the practical consequence of all this? I have no idea yet.
Don’t you fear that Israel could end up becoming a political subject in the United States? There is clear distancing from the Democratic Party.
In this struggle between the populism of the left and the populism of the right, nobody wins
I don’t want to criticize my country while I am abroad. But I will say the following: it’s crucial for Israel to avoid becoming a partisan issue in the US. We should aspire to a similar consensus as that which can be seen in Spain – we met today with deputies from the Spanish Congress, and I think they were from all the parties except for [the anti-austerity party] Podemos. The alienation of the Democratic Party is a bad idea, above all, because this is politics and one day one group is in government and the next it is the other way around.
You mentioned Podemos. In Europe, the new left-wing populist parties have made criticizing Israel a prominent part of their foreign policy programs. And these people are sitting in parliament. What would you say to them?
The Gay Pride Parade is being held in Madrid on Saturday. Explain to me, if you can, how Podemos can support groups who are hanging gay people from telephone poles, who think it’s OK to beat women, who are burning churches and synagogues, and who think it’s OK to kill Jews because they are Jews, and Christians because they are Christians.
Are you talking about Iran?
I am talking about Hamas and about Hezbollah, which share the same ideology as Iran. Investigate what groups operating among Palestinians, such as Islamic Jihad, have to say about homosexuals and women's liberation. It’s written there in the manifesto of Hamas, which rules over Gaza: it is necessary to kill Jews to liberate Palestine. Podemos is part of a European left that is siding against a country that has a Gay Pride parade bigger than in Madrid, a country that has been a global pioneer in women’s liberation, a country that is, under very difficult circumstances, a very vibrant and vital democracy in which, for example, the Supreme Court sent a prime minister to prison two years ago. If we were not a real democracy, how could any of this be happening? So I hope that the kind of attitude Podemos and other left radical parties are showing toward Israel is the result of complete ignorance.
But why has the left taken this stance against Israel?
Podemos is part of a European left that is siding against a country that has a bigger Gay Pride than Madrid
These terrorists groups, which are only a small part of the Palestinian population, decided to focus on the political left using terms like “freedom,” like “equal rights,” like “human rights,” which have a lot of resonance among the radical left. Islamic terrorists use a vocabulary they have stolen from Martin Luther King and Karl Marx, from Lenin and Fidel Castro, and they tempt those radical leftist groups to their cause. They [those terrorist groups] believe, as I was saying, in killing gay people and beating wives. This is completely misunderstood in Europe. They are not in favor of the two-state solution. They don’t want a Palestinian State alongside Israel. They only want a Palestinian State on the ashes of Israel.
English version by George Mills.