These days, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are days that according to the Jewish tradition should be used for soul searching. In Israel, as opposed to in other countries, the personal and the public soul searching cannot be separated.
The Talmud tells us that our personal behavior affects the public and its fate. The individual and the world always go together. This year, Israel needs to search its soul about the damage it has done to itself.
The first and most significant damage on the list is the failure by Prime Minister Netanyahu in his campaign against the nuclear deal with Iran.
Netanyahu was right to struggle against the deal, it is a problematic deal and it transforms Iran into a central player, and even worse—a legitimate player, in the Middle East.
But Netanyahu failed entirely in the manner in which he managed the campaign. What happened in the past months is that instead of the White House, the State Department, and the United States Congress (Republicans and Democrats as one) assisting Israel in the campaign to improve the deal, Netanyahu inserted himself into American politics with arrogance and bluntness. He damaged Israel’s national interest.
He misread the map of the new United States, which has changed dramatically in the past decade, turned the administration into an enemy, turned the Democratic Party into an enemy, and turned the Israeli government into a satellite of the Republican Party. He created a head-on confrontation with the administration at the exact moment we most needed the administration with us.
The result is failure across the entire front. No one takes seriously, and I say that politely, Netanyahu’s claim that he was seeking only a “moral victory.” For months his people told anyone who was willing to listen that he knows how to defeat the president in Congress, and then he lost, a crushing defeat. It wasn’t a defeat on points; it was a defeat by knock-out.
There wasn’t even a need for a presidential veto: Some of our closest friends in Congress voted for the deal, the position of our security establishment on supervision wasn’t even heard, there is not even a word about Iranian involvement in the funding of terrorism across the region, no one is talking about Iran’s calls to destroy the State of Israel.
To involve yourself in the American elections, to demean the president and secretary of State through anonymous and not so anonymous leaks, are acts that cause harm to the State of Israel. To travel to speak before Congress behind the president’s back under the auspices of the Republican Party, only because you have elections in Israel, is an act of national irresponsibility.
Can you imagine a situation in which President Barack Obama appeared one day to speak before the Israeli Knesset, appeared on the podium without coordinating it with Netanyahu, and then delivered a speech in the plenary in which he called on members of Knesset to vote against Netanyahu and his policies? The country would be furious, and rightly so.
After all that, people are surprised that the president and secretary of State signed an agreement without hearing Netanyahu’s concerns. Why should they listen when he works against them at home?
I don’t know if the people of Israel have understood yet the extent of the damage caused by Netanyahu, not only on the deal but also the wider implications.
It is no coincidence that he, and his associates, are doing all they can to prevent an inquiry into this failure in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. During my time in the Security Cabinet I was the first to warn—publicly and privately—that Netanyahu was leading us to a pointless and dangerous fight with the American administration.
Netanyahu misread the map of the new United States … and turned the Israeli government into a satellite of the Republican Party.
This is not a temporary crisis. It won’t end the day President Obama leaves the White House. It is a fight that echoes through the entire administration, including the American security establishment; it is dividing the American Jewish community, it significantly weakened AIPAC, Washington’s pro-Israel lobby, and what’s most significant is that the Arab world is fully aware of it. The Arabs see it. The special relationship between us and the United States was always a part of our security deterrent against hostile elements in Arab countries.
This fight hurt and is hurting our security deterrent. Why? Because for the first time it is clear to [our enemies] that the diplomatic Iron Dome and security Iron Dome the United States granted to us are no longer automatic.
It can be done differently. It should be done differently. Instead of six countries managing the negotiations with Iran, we could have been the seventh and protected the Israeli interest in the negotiations.
Our justified demands could have been on the table. A responsible leader, a responsible prime minister who really cared for Israel’s national resilience, would have acted entirely differently.
Firstly, he would have picked up the phone to the King of Saudi Arabia, King Salman, immediately after the interim deal in Lausanne, to coordinate our position with him and the Gulf States who are no less concerned than we are about the strengthening of Iran.
After coordinating with the Saudis he would have flown to Washington and sat with the president and said to him the following: “I’m against this deal; I have every right to express Israel’s opposition to the deal, but let’s determine the rules. Let’s define what is legitimate and what you would see as intervening in your politics. Let us examine the deal before you sign it, not after. Let’s build a mechanism that provides a place for our intelligence services. Let’s decide together what is a breach of the agreement that leads to a return of the sanctions and what is a breach of the agreement which triggers the military option. Let’s conduct a parallel dialogue about Israel’s security and diplomatic needs after a deal. Let’s examine which steps you want to take if the Iranians pump weapons and money to Hezbollah and Hamas. Let’s agree in advance on the diplomatic cover you will provide for us at the United Nations Security Council. Let’s work as partners, not enemies.”
Simultaneously, we should have offered to work together to build something that is sorely missing: an overall coherent strategy against the threat posed by Iran beyond the nuclear issue, a country trying to establish itself as a regional power through terrorism.
That is the way responsible leadership should have approached the issue. That’s what would have led to the best outcome in the current circumstances, which is also what the American administration wanted. We would have weakened Iran, we would have had an impact on the deal, we would have tackled the issue from a position of strength instead of weakness, and we would have strengthened our strategic alliance with the United States instead of causing a crisis with the Americans for the entire Arab world to see.
Iran threatens Israel but it is not the only major threat and it cannot be used as an excuse for inaction. What Netanyahu has done on the Iranian issue is a direct reflection of what he has done on every front. Like always he announced that he is stridently opposed to any solution that is offered but didn’t offer an alternative solution.
So, everything is stuck. In the Middle East if you don’t move forward, you move backward: Israel’s security situation is deteriorating. Israel’s diplomatic situation is deteriorating even more.
For seven years, Netanyahu has been prime minister. Seven years he has told us that now is not the time to take steps forward.
Sometimes it is because of the Iranian nuclear program, sometimes the Arab Spring, again Iran, another round in Gaza, then elections, there is always something. There is always a reason to do nothing, to drag your feet and run away from the need to make a decision.
All that while he sells the Israeli public the story that he is the only one with the experience to be prime minister. Seven years of security and diplomatic deterioration is not experience; it is failure.
Netanyahu didn’t only fail in the management of the Iran issue. Netanyahu failed in Gaza. He promised to rid us of Hamas but Hamas has gotten stronger. On Friday, Qassam and Grad rockets were fired on Ashkelon and Sderot. Every Israeli citizen knows it is a matter of months before another escalation. The rockets are on the way, the tunnels are being dug again.
After Operation Protective Edge I suggested in the Security Cabinet and in public forums to advance a diplomatic initiative—the disarmament of Gaza in exchange for its rehabilitation. At least after seven weeks of fighting and after 72 of our best people fell we would do something to prevent the next round. But Netanyahu is so isolated diplomatically that he failed to start the process. So, it ended with $5 billion of donations and the rehabilitation of Gaza without anyone talking about taking the weapons from Hamas and preventing the next round.
Even Jerusalem, the rock of our existence, he didn’t strengthen. The city is burning. The throwing of rocks and Molotov cocktails has become part of the daily lives of its Jewish residents, our hold over the Arab neighborhoods is non-existent, lone attacks are on the increase, and all he is doing is conducting discussions that he has conducted before because he has no plan.
Netanyahu failed vis-à-vis Hezbollah. Israel has a strategic aim of weakening Hezbollah, and the result is 100,000 rockets aimed at us from the north, including advanced missiles, precise and long range.
Netanyahu failed in his relations with Russia. The advanced Russian S-300 system is on its way to Iran, Russian forces are headed to Latakia in Syria, which severely limits the freedom of Israel’s air force to act in Syria.
Netanyahu failed with Europe, which is leading the boycott and de-legitimization movement against Israel.
In fact, all of his foreign policy failed, and in the process he tore apart the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and divided its responsibilities among six ministers, out of narrow political interests.
And of course, Netanyahu failed with the diplomatic process with the Palestinians. Once, here at Bar Ilan, he dared to say “two states for two peoples,” and since then he has done nothing except go back on himself and go back on himself for going back on himself.
The bottom line is obvious: Netanyahu is not providing us with security. His policy is not bringing us security, in the past years he has only harmed our national security. As anyone who sits in senior security forums knows, he has no path and no idea how to improve the security of the citizens of Israel.
Fear is not a policy. Sowing hatred and anxiety is not a policy.
Israel has the most incredible people in the world. We have the strength of Jewish intelligence and an inner strength like no other nation. With a different leadership we can lead initiatives without compromising on our security. We can act so it will be better here without abandoning our responsibility to prepare for the worst.
With different leadership, which knows what it wants, we can rehabilitate our relations with the United States and the world. We can strengthen our security.
For that to happen, we are offering a real, comprehensive foreign-policy vision that does not try to avoid the Arab-Israeli conflict or claim that time is on our side when it isn’t. Above all else—and having an impact on everything else—the continuation of the current situation with the Palestinians threatens the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state.
Israel cannot allow itself to absorb 3.5 million Palestinians from Gaza and Judea and Samaria. It threatens everything that is important to the continued existence of the Jewish state.
It threatens the Jewish majority in Israel, it threatens the character of the State of Israel, it threatens our continued existence as an advanced Western state, it makes it harder for us to fight the terrorism on our border.
Sooner or later—and probably sooner—the Palestinians will turn to us with support from the world and say, “We understand, you don’t really want to give us a state, so let us vote. Give us civil rights.”
They will start in Jerusalem. Those with blue ID cards in Jerusalem will vote in municipal elections. Imagine the scenario: They will vote and we will have a Palestinian mayor of Jerusalem who, among other things, will be responsible for prayer times at the Western Wall.
Then they will ask to vote for the Knesset. That’s their plan. They know that if we say “no” we will cease to be a democratic state and we will be thrown out of the family of nations. If we say “yes” they’ll go to the voting booths and the Joint Arab List won’t be 13 seats, it will be 50 seats and Israel will cease to be a Jewish state.
My father didn’t move here from the ghetto to live in a bi-national state. He moved here to live in a Jewish state. And if we don’t separate from the Palestinians, the Jewish character of Israel is at risk.
To avoid that we have to initiate, not only defend. The initiative we are presenting—like every initiative—will encounter skepticism and prophecies of gloom, because the problem is not that the Israeli-Palestinian can’t be solved, it is that no-one believes the solution can be implemented anymore.
The reason is that we have been trying to do exactly the same thing again and again, without proposing an alternative. Since the Oslo Accords, at the start of 1990s, there were 11 rounds of direct talks with the Palestinians. I was deeply involved in the last round as part of my role in the Security Cabinet and the negotiation team.
It was a tired process. With tired people. Going over the same old, tired things. Today, most Israelis believe there is no Palestinian partner. It is a theory with a solid basis in reality. It is hard to explain to the outside world the intensity of what we went through, we Israelis, after the disengagement in 2005.
We did everything the world expected. We left the territory, we removed the settlements, and instead of building schools and hospitals, the Palestinians dug terror tunnels and fired rockets at Israel.
After that most Israelis believe that withdrawal invites terrorism. The Palestinians, from their perspective, look at the settlements surrounding their cities and say to themselves that this is concrete proof (literally) that the Israelis never intended to give them their own state.
What contributes to the skepticism is the fact that the Middle East is falling apart and being rebuilt. Borders are being redrawn. Diplomatic frameworks we were used to no longer exist. We still say “Syria” or “Libya” out of habit, but those countries in their previous forms are no longer there.
In the Arab World, and among the Palestinians, there are those who want to cooperate with us. If we don’t do something we are inviting attacks. We can’t limit our policy to the worst case scenarios. We need to define a clear vision and then work to make it a reality.
Israel’s strategic goal needs to be a regional agreement that will lead to full and normal relations with the Arab world and the creation of a demilitarized independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
That’s where Israel needs to head. Separation from the Palestinians with strict security measures will save the Jewish character of the state.
Separation from the Palestinians will allow us to cooperate with large parts of the Arab world against the threat of global jihad, first and foremost ISIS. Against the possibility that the nuclear deal signed with Iran will only increase its ability to act as a regional terrorist power.
Over the past year I have been advancing the regional framework proposal that will lead to a strategic change in Israel’s situation. A regional agreement will rehabilitate our international standing, bring about diplomatic and trade relations with much of the Arab World, bring an end to the conflict with the Palestinians, and will be an economic and security force multiplier that will allow us the opportunity to shape a better future for us and our children.
A regional approach to the conflict reflects the change in the region and the need and possibility to build a new coalition against old problems.
We are watching ISIS advance, watching the situation unfold in Syria, in Iraq, in Sinai, in Yemen. It’s time to throw into the trash can of history the absurd cliché that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the source of all region’s problems. More and more figures in the Arab world understand that it’s not true. Israel needs to join forces with those figures.
Not only with Egypt and Jordan but also with countries like Saudi Arabia, which is fighting on two fronts—against global jihad and against Iran. Israel shares interests with them that we haven’t shared before, in diplomacy and in defense. The crisis in the region is not another excuse for diplomatic paralysis, but an incentive to start a new path.
Managed correctly we can enlist Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States.
One of the lessons from the previous rounds of negotiations is that without wide Arab backing, the Palestinians cannot reach an agreement. Some of those countries will anyway be part of any future Israeli-Palestinian agreement, and it is almost unnatural not to involve them in the process.
Without Egypt there can be no real solution to Gaza. Without Jordan there can be no solution in the Jordan Valley. Without Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States it simply won’t be possible to build a new Palestinian state.
Naturally, the United States will serve as the principal sponsor of any agreement, but Russia and the European Union also have an important role to play as mediators in the region and they can assist in the implementation.
A regional agreement will change Israel’s international standing and provide economic opportunities on a scale that every Israeli will feel directly in their pocket. Aside from the Gulf States opening for Israeli export, the Muslim world includes hundreds of millions of consumers in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. It is a larger market than Europe and is crying out for Israeli business. They need our technology, our innovations in agriculture and energy. An agreement that will include them will boost our GDP, our exports.
So, how do we start? A regional summit as the opening salvo for a comprehensive regional agreement is the most effective tactical and political tool to start the process. The summit needs to be based on a joint statement confirming that it will lead to a regional agreement. The framework of the discussion will be the Saudi-Arab Initiative of 2002, which was reaffirmed in Riyadh in 2007.
The advantage of this initiative is that it doesn’t look to reach an agreement only with the Palestinians, but full and normal relations—diplomatic and economic—with the whole Arab world. Not only a trade zone but diplomatic relations and cooperation in energy and water, a joint struggle against Iran and its terror proxy.
Even if we don’t agree with every word in the Saudi initiative, and it has problematic clauses that I cannot accept, it is an important initiative that can serve as a viable framework for negotiations.
Israel should not have left it unanswered for 13 years. The lack of a response causes the world to think that we’re not really looking for a solution, only excuses to avoid an agreement.
Despite our objections to certain clauses we should congratulate the Saudis on their serious and comprehensive work and their willingness to take a political risk and a positive stand out of a desire to lead to the end of the conflict.
As I said, there will be clauses and paragraphs that we will want to change during the negotiations—but the initiative is the right framework to manage the talks. In other words, the sides agree in advance on the main thing: separation, which will lead Israel to coalesce to the large settlement blocs, clearly defined security measures, and the creation of a demilitarized independent Palestinian state.
To reach an agreement, the summit will need to set in motion two tracks in parallel under American auspices: a direct Israeli-Palestinian track and a multi-lateral Israeli-Arab track. I won’t get into the technical details here, but between the two tracks there will be a central table, administrative in nature, which will bring relevant actors into the bilateral track according to subject and need. The two tracks will deal with the central issues: the question of borders, the rehabilitation of Gaza in exchange for Hamas decommissioning its weapons, the economy, and most importantly security measures.
According to my approach there is a subject I’m unwilling to compromise on: The security measures will work according to benchmarks, not just a gradual timetable but also according to verifiable tests. If the Palestinians fail to adhere to them, the entire process will be stopped. There are two basic principles, which we must not stray from:
The first is that we must not repeat the mistakes of Gaza. The Palestinian state will not become a base for terrorism and rockets against Israel. We must maintain the security coordination that exists and that allows us into the West Bank to prevent terrorism against Israel.
The second stems from the first—Israel’s security cannot be in the hands of others. It has to be in the hands of the IDF and only the IDF. The IDF has the ability, the technology, and the strategy that will provide security for the citizens of Israel, and we will retain the right to put them into action whenever is necessary.
I tried to advance the idea of a regional summit as part of the previous Israeli government, after President Abbas rejected the Kerry initiative. The response from Netanyahu and his staff was that leaders don’t meet if the professional teams don’t first agree on the outcome.
A similar approach exists among the Palestinians and some of the international mediators. “If that’s the case” I asked them, “why do we need leaders?” Maybe with tax treaties we can agree on everything in advance but for the big issues, the existential questions, leaders are exactly what we need. Leaders who are willing to go into the room and take the decisions no one else can take.
I want to argue something that has been proven time and again but is still met with skepticism and disbelief. My argument is that leaders constantly misjudge the ability of their people to accept new ideas. They assume their people are far less flexible than they really are. Far less intelligent than they are. And motivated only by fear and hate rather than hope and a desire for change.
History has repeatedly shown that this isn’t true. No-one believed a non-violent revolution could defeat a colonial occupier until Gandhi proved it. No-one believed that De Klerk and Mandela would shake hands. No-one believed that Gorbachev really would tear down that wall. Again and again the experts and the politicians failed to give their people enough credit.
The Israelis and the Palestinians are led today by people for whom the status quo is their life’s mission. Like the Iranian issue, Netanyahu told us that the suggested solution is terrible but didn’t do what his role demands and suggest an alternative. I’m offering the people of Israel a way to reach an agreement.
It’s not an easy path, we need to walk it carefully and protect our security at all costs, but there is a real and viable alternative here, and it offers progress in place of despair and the future instead of retreat.
I don’t dismiss being careful. Taking care is a sensible policy that helps to protect our existence and those on the other side of the table are not exactly the “righteous among the gentiles.”
But we also need to be wary because there comes a point when being careful becomes paralysis. When for years upon years we are told there is no chance and nothing will change I’m offering you a different path that will lead us to a different place.
Allow me to remind you of an example which you all know: On the 19th of November 1977 an Egyptian plane landed at Ben Gurion Airport, not far from Tel Aviv. Standing and waiting on the red carpet was the Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, a leader of the nationalist camp, a man of the right but first of all a real leader who knew how to take difficult decisions.
The orchestra began to play, the door opened and the President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, stepped off the plane. It was a dramatic, theatrical moment.
There were brief secret talks beforehand and only 10 days before did Sadat announce to the Egyptian National Assembly that he was traveling to Jerusalem. His foreign minister resigned in protest. A few days prior to the event the Israeli chief of staff and the head of army intelligence warned the Israeli government that it was a ruse and that Sadat was concealing aggressive intentions.
It has been nearly 40 years of an effective agreement since then that survived all the upheaval in the region. Those 40 years stem from that inspiring moment.
That moment allowed both nations, Israel and Egypt, to break free from decades of restricted thought. It allowed them imagine their lives if a peace deal was signed. From that moment onward both leaderships, in both countries, received widespread public support for compromise and could reach an agreement.
It became apparent that when the leaders are willing to act like leaders, their people join them.
I believe in our nation. I believe in its might, in its inner strength, in its ability to face the challenges before it.
I have three children. I believe that most of you have children and grandchildren. We cannot just take our difficult challenges and pass them on. We owe our children more. We can’t leave them a country that faces an operation in Gaza each year; hundreds of thousands of rockets aimed at us from Lebanon and increased international isolation.
We have to do everything so that their inheritance isn’t our problems. We don’t need to hide from the future. We don’t need to fear the future or see it as a threat. We need to create it and determine our own fate, with our own hands.
This is the lightly edited English-language text of a speech delivered in Hebrew by Yair Lapid at Bar Ilan University on Sunday, Sept. 20.
Yair Lapid is the chairman of Israel’s Yesh Atid Party.