Will Lapid’s charm offensive work better than Netanyahu’s realpolitik?

July 29, 2021 by Jonathan S. Tobin - JNS.org
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Like all new governments determined to show that it is an improvement over its predecessor, the unlikely coalition cobbled together by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid—though formally led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett—is determined to show that it will succeed where former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks during a Yesh Atid Party meeting at the Knesset on July 26, 2021. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Thus, it was hardly surprising that Lapid would use one of his first public briefings at his new office to blame the country’s woes on Netanyahu. The narrative was a familiar one. According to Lapid, Netanyahu had de-emphasized diplomacy and alienated old friends.

He acknowledged that the Likud-led government had forged strong ties with Republicans and evangelical Christians in the United States and had, with the help of the Trump administration, made historic breakthroughs with normalization agreements with four Arab and Muslim countries. But he pointed out that as much as Netanyahu had won new friends for his country in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, he believes that he was responsible for the difficult relations it has with Western Europe and among Democrats in the United States. Not satisfied with tying Netanyahu to problems that long predated his time in power, Lapid also went so far as to link the surge in anti-Semitism around the world, and in particular, in the United States in the aftermath of the most recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, to a lack of diplomatic effort on the part of Netanyahu.

Rather than seek to engage his country’s critics, Lapid thinks Netanyahu and his envoys “insulted them and made speeches against them.” But now he says this will all change. Lapid says he will “work with them in a different fashion” that will emphasize “dialogue.” In doing so, he will make plain that “not everyone who doesn’t agree with us is an anti-Semite and Israel-hater.”

That this is both hyperbole and a caricature of Netanyahu’s actual policies almost goes without saying. And it is particularly hypocritical on Lapid’s part to have said that.

Far from being slow to cast aspersions on Israel’s detractors, he was quick to label the Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream company’s boycott of Jerusalem and the territories as an act of anti-Semitism, much to the dismay of so-called “progressives” in the Jewish community who are supporting this legitimization of BDS campaigns against the Jewish state.

Even more absurd, Lapid was willing to blame the surge in anti-Semitism in the United States on Netanyahu’s decision to transfer most of the responsibility for diplomacy to his own office from the foreign ministry and for the cuts he made to its budget. While the ministry has many hard-working diplomats who deserve their country’s support, Lapid was demonstrating his utter lack of knowledge about what has driven that increase in anti-Semitic activity. It wasn’t the lack of outreach on the part of consular or embassy officials that led to members of the Democratic Party’s left wing and its radical “Squad’s” demonization of Israel. Nor is there anything that even the most competent or well-funded diplomats could have done in the last decade to halt the rise of critical race theory and intersectionality—first on college campuses and then in America’s public square.

Part of the problem is that Lapid is being disingenuous about having a fundamentally different approach to these issues. As he has acknowledged, although he supports a two-state solution in principle, he has already told the European diplomats that he thinks he can connect with better than Netanyahu that it isn’t feasible for the foreseeable future. What’s more, he insists that if a Palestinian state happens “eventually,” then it can only be a peaceful democratic nation. He knows that is more or less impossible under any conceivable scenario imaginable. So that is morally equivalent to telling an international community and the Democratic Party that still clings to the delusion that the main obstacle to a two-state solution is Israeli intransigence to get lost.

Despite rightly labeling BDS as anti-Semitism, Lapid has made some moves towards his country’s detractors.

Part of this is a matter of empty gestures. His claim after his first meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken that he can restore the old bipartisan consensus on Israel in the United States is a fantasy, but it is probably a good idea for him to at least pretend that he can reach the half of the Democratic Party that is increasingly hostile to Zionism because of ideological reasons.

Even less helpful was his embrace of a more universalist approach to anti-Semitism at a recent conference after which he was rightly criticized for blurring the difference between Jew-hatred and any other kind of prejudice. But rather than double down on a stand that may have been applauded by his country’s foes rather than its supporters, he backed away from it this week in an op-ed published in Haaretz in which he embraced the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism that rightly focuses in part on anti-Zionism, which won’t win him any friends in London, Paris, Berlin or in the left-wing of the Democratic Party.

While those who represent the Jewish state need to be flexible and resourceful while competing on a diplomatic playing field that is most often stacked against their country, the idea that Israel thrives when being more accommodating is a myth. On the contrary, in the last 28 years since the Oslo Accords, to the extent that Israel accepted the false premise that it was a thief in possession of “occupied Palestinian land” rather than a country with an excellent case to make for its own right to hold onto the territories, it lost ground diplomatically. If anti-Zionism has been allowed to become an acceptable discourse in mainstream American discussions, it is because Israel has made so many vain concessions for the sake of peace like Oslo and the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, not because it didn’t make enough of them. Such concessions validated the case being made by those who falsely accused it of practicing “apartheid” and other slurs.

By contrast, in recent years, as Netanyahu increasingly discarded even lip service to the idea of a two-state solution, it was able to greatly expand the ranks of its friends throughout the world, including in the heretofore uniformly hostile Middle East.

Just as important, whoever is in charge at the foreign ministry needs to keep a close watch on staffers who have at times in the past failed to understand that their priority should be to make the case for the justice of Israel’s cause and not be diverted into foolish digressions like its tragicomic embrace of an effort to “rebrand” Israel as a country known for beautiful scenery, attractive people and smart scientists. It has all three in abundance; however, that won’t matter if its representatives are too busy trying to be liked to label its critics as anti-Semites, and the lies about apartheid and oppression go unrefuted.

Charm offensives may have their uses. But as Netanyahu demonstrated, alliances based on common interests and realpolitik are more reliable than attempts to be warm and fuzzy in settings where pop-culture influencers are already prejudiced against the idea of a Jewish state more than they are critical of its policies.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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