Yair Lapid's Score Sheet as Israel's Foreign Minister
Passionate but not always diplomatic.
Yair Lapid (58), Israel’s current Foreign Minister, and alternate Prime Minister, was not much of a success as Finance Minister (March 2013-December 2014) in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Netanyahu fired him from the post. Unseating Netanyahu was Lapid’s major ambition. Lapid’s untiring efforts to build a coalition government following Netanyahu’s failure to form one in spite of his Likud party being the largest party. Nafatali Bennett’s decision to go with the left of center Lapid, rather than with the more ideologically compatible Netanyahu, enabled the formation of the left-right-Arab coalition, led by Lapid and Bennett.
Lapid has shown hyper-active energy in the last three months while serving as the Foreign Minister. His energy, however, has not been translated to skilled diplomacy. He has already made some major blunders, and he is essentially running the foreign ministry as his independent fiefdom. Leading his Yesh Atid party of 17 seats in Israel’s 120 Knesset seats (second only to the Likud’s 30 seats), he dwarfs Bennett’s Yemina party with only 6 seats (KM Amichai Chikli was Yemina’s 7th seat, but he no longer votes with the coalition or Yamina). Lapid can ignore Bennett without fearing that the latter would bolt the government. Bennett’s ambition to add the title of Prime Minister to his resume, and the bad blood between him and Netanyahu, tipped the balance of power. Unfortunately for Netanyahu, his long stint as prime minister made him many enemies including Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of Israel Beitenu, and more recently Benny Gantz, chairman of the Blue and White party.
Lapid’s latest visit was to Moscow, where he landed on Thursday, September 9, 2021. In the Russian Federation capital, he met with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Following their meeting, the two issued joint statements. Lapid pointed out that the world needs to send a strong and clear message that, “A nuclear Iran would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.” Lapid is reported to have told Lavrov that Israel reserves the right to act against Iran’s nuclear program. He said, “Iran’s march toward a nuclear weapon is not only an Israeli problem, it’s a problem for the entire world.” Israel’s operation against Iranian targets in Syria constitutes a sensitive issue with the Russians. Their ostensible reason for being in Syria is Syria’s dictator Bashar Assad’s invitation to Russia to defend his regime. Albeit, the Russians always dreamt of a port on the Mediterranean Sea, where they now have military bases. Lapid did however make it clear that, “Israel will not sit quietly while Iran builds terror bases on our northern border with Syria.” He added, “We will maintain our ability to defend ourselves in the face of threats in Syria and elsewhere.”
The day in Moscow also marked the 30th anniversary of relations between Israel and Russia. Lapid managed earlier in the day to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the name of the citizens of Israel, honoring the Russian soldiers who fell in WWII. At the Tomb, Lapid said, “Israel appreciates the role the Soviet Union played in defeating Nazi Germany, and the Red Army’s role in liberating the death camps.”
While he was passionate with effective statements in Moscow, Lapid’s statement to journalists on September 1, 2021, publicly criticizing the hasty American withdrawal from Afghanistan, was less than diplomatic. It came shortly after PM Bennett returned from an especially warm meeting in the White House with President Joe Biden. It isn’t that Lapid’s words were insulting or incorrect, they were merited on the facts, but it should have been said in private. Lapid expressed some of the same concerns most Americans had about the way the withdrawal was handled. But, considering the fact that Biden made sure to spend time with Bennett in the midst of the Afghanistan crisis, Lapid’s statement appears ungrateful and undiplomatic.
Realizing his mistake, and the uncomfortable position he placed PM Bennett in, Lapid, on September 6, 2021, called US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to express his regrets over the earlier statement about the Afghanistan withdrawal. Lapid’s office issued a statement saying, “The minister (Lapid) expressed his deep appreciation for the US efforts in Afghanistan, especially with regard to the extraordinary evacuation operation.”
Perhaps the most glaring example of a crisis Lapid has been involved with is in the relationship with Poland. Once again, what Lapid accused the Polish government of isn’t wrong, and in fact, most of the Israeli public concurs with Lapid. But a seasoned diplomat might have been more delicate in order to maintain a more positive diplomatic discourse. Lapid seeks to create his own agenda, which combines liberal and progressive worldview along with Israeli nationalism, and patriotic fervor.
During most of Netanyahu’s term in office, Poland was considered one of Israel’s closest friends in Europe, and an important ally in international forums, including the United Nations, and its agencies. Although the seeds of the crisis with Poland began during Netanyahu’s premiership, it has been aggravated in recent months. The Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party that currently holds power in Warsaw is a right-wing populist and conservative party, with a strong Polish Catholic Church influence. It is the Restitution Law passed by the Polish parliament (Sejm), and signed into law by the Polish President Andrzej Duda, that fueled the crisis. The law would prevent Polish Jews (survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants) from receiving compensation for property stolen from them during the Holocaust. The law sets a 30-year limit on challenges to property confiscation. It means that pending proceedings involving the Communist era property confiscation would be discontinued and dismissed.
Lapid recalled Israel’s ambassador to Poland for consultations, and advised Poland’s ambassador to Israel to remain on holiday, and not return to Israel. Responding to Duda’s signing the Restitution law, Lapid charged, “Poland, not for the first time, passed an antisemitic and immoral law,” adding, “Today’s Poland turned into an anti-democratic, illiberal country that doesn’t respect the greatest tragedy in human history.” Indeed, more than 90% of Polish Jewry was killed by the Nazis and some Polish collaborators.
Israel’s former deputy ambassador to Poland, Ami Mahel, disagrees with Lapid’s approach. He suggested that the role of diplomacy is to engage in dialogue, build bridges, and resolve problems. This apparently fell short in Poland’s case.
Lapid’s historic visit to Morocco last month to dedicate Israel’s new diplomatic offices in Morocco’s capital of Rabat ended in controversy. In his talks with his Moroccan counterpart, Lapid expressed concern about Algeria’s role in the region, and in particular, its closeness to Iran. Algeria severed its relations with Morocco soon thereafter, citing in part Lapid’s statements. Should Lapid have raised such issues in such a forum? Clearly, Lapid lacks Netanyahu’s suaveness. He needs to sharpen his diplomatic skills.
Lapid is eager to prove that he is as good as Netanyahu in winning foreign friendships. He may have improved relations with the US Democratic party (Democrats are hostile to Netanyahu for his friendship with President Trump), but he is still a long way from reaching Netanyahu’s stature in foreign relations.