By Ron Kampeas
(JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid recommitted Israel to the two-state outcome in a United Nations speech on Thursday, Sept. 22, reversing the policy of his predecessors.
Lapid was speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Thursday, just weeks before a Nov. 1 election in Israel, where he will face a challenge from Benjamin Netanyahu, who rejected the two-state outcome in recent years.
The speech also aligns Lapid more closely with President Joe Biden, who made a similar call in his General Assembly remarks on Tuesday, Sept. 20.
Lapid wrapped his recommitment to the policy in a speech that depicted Israel as both militarily strong and courageous in the name of peace; one of his main lines of attack on Netanyahu is a claim that the former prime minister made Israel seem like a victim on the world stage.
“Israel’s economic and military strength allows us to protect ourselves but it also allows us something else, to strive for peace with the entire Arab world and with our closest neighbors, the Palestinians,” Lapid said. “An agreement with the Palestinians based on two states for two people is the right thing for Israel’s security, for Israel’s economy and for the future of our children. Peace is not a compromise. It is the most courageous decision we can make.”
It’s not clear in what context Lapid would be able to advance any such outcome: The Palestinian Authority is facing unrest in the portions of the West Bank territory it controls; Hamas, the militant group labeled a terrorist entity by the United States and Europe, controls the Gaza Strip; and Lapid’s coalition no longer has the number of seats for a majority heading into the Nov. 1 election.
Naftali Bennett, who rejects the two-state solution and who was Lapid’s partner in setting up the current government, criticized Lapid’s plans when they were leaked a day ahead of the speech. But he also noted that what appears to be motivating Lapid was their shared commitment to not alienate U.S. Democrats. Lapid and Bennett had agreed to leave two states off the table as a means of holding together the left-to-right coalition they led.
“The way I led as prime minister:” Bennett said on Twitter, referring to his rotation agreement with Lapid, who assumed the prime ministership in July, “just as one doesn’t pick fights with the world for no reason, one doesn’t give in for no reason. There is no logic or place to raise anew the idea of a Palestinian state.”
Lapid also appeared to retreat to a degree from two of Netanyahu’s views: that Israel would control security over the West Bank in any final two-state agreement, and that a future Palestinian state would have to be demilitarized. Lapid’s language was more vague, saying Israel must “have the ability to protect the security of all the citizens of Israel, at all times.”
Lapid additionally seemed to hold out an unprecedented olive branch to Gaza. While he called on its residents to declare a permanent cease-fire and on Hamas to return Israeli captives as a predicate for peace, he did not mention a demand that Israel has made for decades: a declarative recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
“I say from here to the people of Gaza, we are ready to help you build a better life, to build an economy,” he said. “We presented a comprehensive plan to help rebuild Gaza. We only have one condition: Stop firing rockets and missiles at our children. Put down your weapons, there will be no restrictions.”
Again, it was not clear under which rubric this advance toward peace would happen, although Lapid may have been appealing to Gazans to unseat Hamas in long-delayed elections.
“Prove that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are not going to take over the Palestinian state you want to create,” Lapid said.
Agreeing with the ideology of Netanyahu and Bennett, Lapid made clear that a military option to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is on the table.
“We have an army. We have great friendships, first and foremost with the United States. We have capabilities and we are not afraid to use them,” he said. “We will do whatever it takes: Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.”
Notably, however, Lapid did not mention the Biden administration’s efforts to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, which he, Bennett and Netanyahu have criticized in the past — another sign that Lapid was doing his best to get along with Washington.