Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid threw a spanner into the works recently when he told the UN General Assembly that, “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.”
Lapid’s statement took many by surprise, including the Palestinian leadership. But was he being serious?
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has been addressing the General Assembly every September, year after year, recycling the same old 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. This time, too, Abbas did his bit 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”.
Like Naftali Bennett and Benjamin Netanyahu before him, Lapid was also expected to stick to the script: accuse the 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.
He did not go down that route, though. True, he regurgitated much of the typical Israeli discourse, accusing Palestinians of “firing rockets and missiles at our children” and suchlike. However, he also spoke, unexpectedly, about Israel’s desire to see a Palestinian state. This was conditional upon it not becoming “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 was both interesting and politically risky, because most Israelis — 58 per cent, according to the Israel Democracy Institute — do not support the idea of a Palestinian state. Given that Israel is heading for yet another General Election — the fifth in less than four years — swimming against Israel’s dominant political current does not, on the face of it, seem like a winning idea.
In fact, immediate condemnations of Lapid’s statement were forthcoming from Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked. They suggested that Lapid’s UN comments will definitely be a contentious campaign issue in the coming weeks.
So why did the Israeli prime minister utter these words?
To begin with, we have to understand that Lapid is not serious about a Palestinian state. Israeli leaders have used this line 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 both waved the Palestinian state carrot before the Palestinian leadership to buy Israel time to expand its network of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. They can also cite the Palestinians’ alleged rejection, incitement and violence as real obstacles before the establishment of such a state can be possible.
Lapid’s rhetoric about 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, he aimed to upset the predictable routine at the UN, where Palestinians make their case which is usually supported by most UN members, and where Israel goes on the defensive. By alluding to a Palestinian state — a day before Abbas made his appeal for Palestine’s full UN membership — Lapid wanted to regain the initiative and appear as a pro-active leader with a plan.
Although it may appear that Lapid’s statement was a bad political move within the context of the right-wing dominance across Israeli politics, this might not be the case. For years, the left and centre in Israel have been embattled, as they appeared to have no answers to any of Israel’s external and internal problems.
In contrast, the right and its growing alliances with the religious and ultra-nationalist camps, seemed to have the answer to everything: Palestinian demands for freedom and sovereignty were met with annexation; and Palestinian protests against home demolitions in occupied East Jerusalem were met with more demolitions, large-scale destruction and ever more expulsions.
Unable to stop the tidal wave of the right, Israel’s nominal left wing, such as the Labor Party, and centre like Kahol Lavan, moved to the right. After all, right-wing ideas may be sinister and violent, but they are the only ones that seem to be gaining traction among Israeli voters.
Israel’s political dichotomy, however, grew larger, as expressed by the stalemates of four consecutive General Elections since 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 centre-left coalition that can offer more than mere opposition to the right’s ideas and visions, and has plans of its own.
So while a Palestinian state is hardly a popular idea among most Israelis, Lapid’s target audience is not just Israel’s left, centre and, possibly, Arab parties. Another target audience is the Biden administration in Washington.
US President Joe Biden and his Democratic Party, which remains, at least verbally, committed to a two-state solution, are facing very difficult times with the mid-term election in November, which could cost them dearly in the House and Senate, and the presidential election in 2024. Biden is keen to present his administration as one with military strength and a vision of peace and stability. Lapid’s words about a Palestinian state were meant to convince Biden and his team to engage with him as a “peacemaker”.
Finally, Lapid is aware of the impending transition in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. As an armed Intifada is growing in the northern Occupied West Bank, the PA’s Abbas, 87, will soon leave the scene. A potential successor, Hussein Al-Sheikh, is particularly close to Israel’s security apparatus, and is thus not trusted by most Palestinians.
The talk of a Palestinian state is, therefore, meant to give whoever succeeds Abbas political leverage to stave off an armed revolt and take Palestinians into yet another futile hunt for yet another political mirage.
It remains to be seen if Lapid’s strategy will pay dividends; if it will cost him in the coming Israeli election; or if his words will evaporate as have many such references by previous Israeli leaders.
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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.