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Q&A: Israeli Opposition Leader Yair Lapid

The former journalist talks about his political ideology, Netanyahu’s trial, the prospect of annexation, the future of Arab-Jewish partnership in Israeli politics, and how he discovered non-Orthodox Judaism

Yair Rosenberg
May 27, 2020
Amir Levy/Getty Images
Blue and White Party member Yair Lapid speaks during a campaign rally on Sept, 15, 2019, in Tel AvivAmir Levy/Getty Images
Amir Levy/Getty Images
Blue and White Party member Yair Lapid speaks during a campaign rally on Sept, 15, 2019, in Tel AvivAmir Levy/Getty Images

On May 21, 2020, Israel’s new opposition leader, Yair Lapid, was interviewed by Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg, in his first live on-camera English interview since assuming his position. The video of the conversation can be viewed here. What follows is an abridged transcript that has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

YAIR ROSENBERG: You have spent years making a pretty muscular case for a form of political centrism and moderation in Israel. Many thought that your party, Yesh Atid, was just a flash in the pan that would subside like so many other third-way Israeli parties, including your own father’s. I recall a very prestigious American publication whose editor in 2013 wrote a long cover story about the future of Israeli politics—and the whole thing was about Naftali Bennett, the settler leader who ended up getting 12 seats that election to your 19, and who today has just four, while you have 16. So after all that, here you are six elections later, leading the opposition. Why is that, and what do you think outside observers miss about what you’re doing?

YAIR LAPID: Well, I guess they missed two things: One is the fact that we are part of a strong and very interesting international movement, which includes for example, Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche in France [and] Rutte’s movement in the Netherlands. There is only one real rule in politics, which is the pendulum principle. And centrism was the answer and still is the answer to the rise of populism. Somebody needed to give an answer to the rise of populism from the left and from the right … So, it wasn’t an Israeli phenomenon, but a global phenomenon, and an interesting one that is lasting all over the world.

Number two is that the ideas were solid. The idea of centrism is [the effort] not to bifurcate the main reasoning of our lives but to try and connect them. I’ll give you an example. Israel is a Jewish democratic state. It seems like the Israeli right is leaning towards the Jewish part and the Israeli left is leaning towards the democratic part. What we are saying is that our duty is to make those live together. If we are a liberal national movement, it means we understand nationalism doesn’t contradict liberal ideas but supports liberal ideas. The liberal ideas are the core which our nationalism is surrounding. So what we’re trying to do is to form a movement that tells people being an extremist is not authentic. Understanding what life is really about is authentic. And life usually happens in the center because this is where the middle class live, this is where sane, moderate people live. This is where the majority is.

And, funny enough, the majority didn’t have a voice until we appeared. I still remember people from the Israeli left going on Knesset podiums and telling us all that Yesh Atid, that myself, we are all just a trend and we will disappear soon, the same way it was written in 2013. All these people are not in politics anymore, and here we are, still alive and kicking. I think we need less theories and more politicians who are capable of working for people, understanding a country more as a managed conflict and less as a battle between two sides that want to kill each other.

Most Israelis don’t have personal experience with non-Orthodox Judaism. Your father was an outspoken secularist, and in that he represented the relationship of a lot of non-Orthodox Jewish Israelis to religion. But you’ve been an outspoken advocate for non-Orthodox Judaism in the Israeli public sphere. Can you explain how your personal relationship with non-Orthodox Judaism came to be, especially since most Israelis very understandably don’t know so much about it because it’s not so much an Israeli phenomenon?

Well, it’s formed by meeting people from the diaspora. By being curious. One of the things that is sometimes depressing to me is the lack of curiosity within Israeli society, especially Israeli youth, toward their brothers and sisters abroad. Maybe because I am the son of an immigrant who was raised in Europe—my grandparents in Budapest used to go to the Dohány Synagogue in Budapest, which is probably an early version of a Conservative synagogue—it was intriguing to me. And it led to an intense and long dialogue between myself and American leaders like [URJ President Rabbi] Rick Jacobs from the Reform movement, and people from the Conservative movement like Rabbi [Elliot] Cosgrove from Park Avenue Synagogue, whom I am proud to call a friend.

So, like everything else in life, it is part of an ongoing dialogue. When you are sometimes the sole voice who protects these streams of Judaism, they tend to talk to you and then you get to know them better. I’ve said many times and this is an opportunity to say it again: I refuse to bow to the fact that Israel has become the only Western democracy in which Jews do not have freedom of religion. Only today, the mayor of Jerusalem said that Reform Jews will not be allowed to pray at the Wailing Wall, at the kotel, and I reacted in response saying that the times in which Jews were not allowed to pray wherever they want are gone and good riddance.

So the answer is: I was curious. Fortunately enough, they were curious about the fact that I’m curious about them, and so a dialogue evolved that was interesting and enriching for both sides.

Moving into the Israeli domestic sphere, one of the paradigm shifts that became evident this past election “year” in Israel was the increasing electoral participation of Arab voters, and the subsequent willingness of the predominantly Arab Joint List party to coordinate and cooperate with the Israeli opposition to Netanyahu. There’s even a case to be made that if not for two right-wing holdouts within Benny Gantz’s faction, he might have formed a minority government in coordination with the Joint List. Now, despite your own strongly expressed differences with members of the Joint List’s slate, you’ve also appeared alongside the party’s leader Ayman Odeh at rallies for Israeli democracy. As more Israeli Arabs vote and tell their leaders that they want their representatives to work with—rather than boycott—the Zionist Jewish parties, where do you see this heading in the years ahead? Is there a future for Jewish-Arab cooperation in Israeli politics, and what does it look like?

Two quick thoughts: One is because of the coronavirus, all of a sudden, Israelis have noticed the fact that so many of our doctors and nurses working in our hospitals, taking care of our elderly, are Arabs—Israeli Arabs. You know, it’s interesting, what’s the first thing that differentiates young Jews from young Arabs in Israel? They don’t go to the army, and we do. And all of a sudden, there was this new huge battleground and everybody was fighting shoulder-to-shoulder and this meant a lot to a lot of people. There are two by now famous Arab doctors who are running hospitals here in Israel. So you get to hear these voices speaking on day-to-day or almost day-to-day issues, and you’re saying okay, all of a sudden I like the accent, or all of a sudden, I feel a new form of comradery being created.

Number two is, again, when you get to know people, then you are able to differentiate. Once we started the dialogue with the Joint List, it was more obvious—I mean we knew it, those of us who are in politics knew it in advance—but it became obvious to a lot of Israelis, to the majority of Israelis, that the Arabs in this country—20% of Israeli citizens—are not formed the same way, the same way the Jews are not! I mean, yes, there are within the supporters and even some of the Knesset members of the Joint Arab List, people who are supporting terror, and these are the people who you don’t want to be in dialogue with and you cannot accept the fact that they’ve been saying publicly that they support Hezbollah and Hamas. But you also have within the Israeli extreme right people who support terror and you cannot accept this either. And it doesn’t mean the entire Israeli right is supporting terror, and it does not mean you cannot speak with the entire Israeli right, or even—I don’t want to say the extreme right—but the people who are hardliners of the Israeli right. You can be a hardliner and still a decent person. The same way you can be part of the Joint List, a Knesset member of Joint List, who is not supporting terror, but has views you disagree with.

Again, I guess my and my party’s centrism becomes handy because we are saying we are all about this ability to measure the world for what it really is and discuss with people and understand their real motives, instead of labeling them and saying, “OK, all Arabs are terror-supporters and therefore we cannot speak with them.” No, they are 20% of the Israeli citizens and therefore they are also a complicated, interesting, important to talk to group of Israelis—and of course we support equal rights for everybody, regardless of their religion or ethnic origins. So, yes, I think there is an interesting future to these relations in the political arena.

We need less theories and more politicians who are capable of working for people, understanding a country more as a managed conflict and less as a battle between two sides that want to kill each other.

Speaking of the political arena—as we all know, the reason you are in the position you are in now as the opposition leader is that you split with your one-time partner and ally Benny Gantz when he made the last-minute decision to join a unity government with Benjamin Netanyahu. Gantz argued that the move was necessary to safeguard Israeli democracy by ensuring that the rule of law would be upheld (which is to say, Netanyahu would go on trial) and also that there was credible, stable governance during the coronavirus crisis. You obviously disagreed strongly with his decision and justifications, and have been sharply critical of both. Why did you decide that the right place was outside this government rather than in?

Because principles are not circumstantial. I mean, Gantz gave an interview a couple of days ago, and somebody asked him, “You said that by principle you’ll never serve under a prime minister with three indictments just because it’s immoral, unethical, and against not only your best judgment, but the core of your principle.” And he said, “Yes, I said it, it was a principle, but it was a principle that was only good for the time.” Principles by definition are not timed. They are eternal. And I strongly feel, as you’ve said, if you promise to the public that you are unwilling to serve under a prime minister with three indictments—and you knew in advance that he was indicted and going to trial—then you cannot claim something has changed. Nothing has changed. Maybe it’s not as easy as you thought it would be. Maybe there are obstacles. Maybe there are difficulties. But when you use the term “being able to hold under pressure,” this is the moment the term was [created] for. Yes, there was a huge pressure, and people felt we didn’t do as well as we thought we would, and people felt that we didn’t know what will happen. But what you do in circumstances like this is just hold your own and you just go back to your core values, and you look into your own heart, and you try to figure out how to be able to live with yourself afterwards.

I am not naive. I am an experienced politician by now. I know that politics is the art of the possible, but you have to have some red lines. And the red line here was that we formed the party, the Kahol Lavan [Blue and White] party, with Benny Gantz, saying we need to bring change to the country. Then, to crawl under Netanyahu who has been there for 14 years now, has nothing to do with change and hope and the wind of change we wanted to bring to the country. And what I’ve said to myself is, well, my values are the same values I was telling the people about and therefore I’m going to continue to fight the good fight with my partners, and I can only be very—“sorry” is a small word—heartbroken, from the fact that people I’ve marched with for more than a year have collapsed under the pressure.

What do you think is at stake for Israel in Netanyahu’s trial?

First and foremost, it’s an ethical and moral blow to the heart of the nation. You know, it’s interesting, the only reason there is nothing written in our laws against the idea that somebody with three indictments—criminal indictments!—will be still serving as a prime minister is because the founding fathers couldn’t even imagine somebody with three indictments will not resign, and will say, “No, I’m staying here, and I’m gonna do both. I’m gonna be in the morning in my trial and in the afternoon in the security cabinet ordering, I don’t know, an attack on Syria.”

One horrible thing in the new world that we are living in is the fact that people are getting used to everything. Everything that used to be crazy and unheard of and scandalous. You know, another day passes, another day passes, and you get used to it. The first time I said on television to somebody who was interviewing me, “we cannot have a prime minister with three indictments,” he said, “yes, this is horrific, this is shocking, it will never happen.” The last time I said this to somebody who was interviewing me, his eyes glazed and he wanted to speak about something else, because he’d heard it so many times. Now, I know that it is very complicated to explain to Americans these days that there is a possibility that politics will become crazy, but here in Israel it happened, and we are trying to figure out ways to protect what we are against something that is so deeply unethical, to say the least.

Speaking of what Netanyahu will be doing in the evenings when he’s not on trial, according to the current coalition agreement, the only two things this government is allowed to freely legislate on is the coronavirus response and the potential annexation of the West Bank, in whole or in part. There has been much speculation whether Trump will greenlight such a move, and whether Netanyahu—who has had over a decade in power to do something like this and never attempted it, and in fact quashed it—will actually go through with it. Having spent some time with Netanyahu over the years, do you think he means it this time, and what is Yesh Atid’s position on annexation?

Well, I will start with the latter. We are against anything that is unilateral. That is not to say that I don’t feel or think that the Jordan Valley is Israel, and will be Israel in any future that I can predict or imagine, or in any future agreement with the Palestinians. And you know what, the Jordan Valley is now part of Israel. It’s not like somebody is threatening to take it away from us. Having said that, anything that is unilateral endangers our peace treaty with Jordan, our security coordination with the Palestinian Authority, our relations with the Democratic Party in the U.S.—that looks at this as something that puts in peril the principle of one person, one vote—and our relations with the European Union. To take all these risks for a move that physically will change nothing but in terms of our international position might endanger the country in so many ways, is just not smart. So, we’re going to vote against it, Yesh Atid’s going to vote against it, but after emphasizing the fact that we support the idea that the Jordan Valley is and always will be the eastern security border of Israel. The problem is that the fact that Netanyahu’s trial is threatening his legitimacy as the prime minister is making it very important to him to gather around him the Israeli right, and the easiest way to do so is to annex the Jordan Valley. So I am afraid that there is a strong possibility that they will go on with this risky, unnecessary move.

One of the things that people ask about a lot from an American perspective, and not just from an American perspective, is the outlook of Israel towards diaspora Jews. Because this has of course been a long-running discussion, debate, conversation, within Israel—where half of the world’s Jews live—and also many other Jewish communities around the world. How does Israel relate to them? Do they think “all Jews belong in Israel” or “Jews should be all over”? And you hear different voices in the Israeli conversation, especially in the current government—which likes certain non-Israeli Jews, but very often seems to only like those who agree with them politically. So I’m curious how you envision Israel’s relationship with Jews outside Israel.

In ways it’s a generational thing. Meaning, young Israelis do not know many young American Jews, or many young Jews in the diaspora, the way my generation or of course my parents’ generation knew Jews in the diaspora. Israel was a country in which, up until I don’t know 25 years ago, the majority of Jews came from somewhere, and they were holding the two cultures in the same hat. This is not what is happening right now in Israel. The young Israelis are just Israeli. They’ve met maybe a bus of young people who came in a Birthright tour when they were in the army, but this is about it, and this is not enough. Now our challenge is to make sure that the next generations of young Jews will meet each other and talk to each other and have a constant dialogue with each other. And I think this is a joint duty but more so the duty of Israel to make sure that the young Israelis understand the diaspora, the importance of the diaspora, the culture of the diaspora.

I’ll give you a quick example that for my generation is almost weird. The fact that young Israelis don’t even understand—they know it, maybe, intellectually, but they don’t understand it emotionally—what it is to live surrounded by non-Jews. To be, I don’t know, a Jew in Montana, a Jew in upstate New York, a Jew in California, for whom 90% of the people you meet are not Jewish. And how does this affect your worldview? How does this affect your relation with your Judaism? This is something that has become strange to the majority of Israelis.

On top of this, there is … the fact that our government has adopted and accepted a very specific version of Judaism, which is the Israeli version of being Orthodox. It’s not even the American version of being Orthodox. Now, you said earlier that the majority of Israelis or some of the Israelis are secular. I will disagree. I’m a secular Jew, and being a secular Jew is an ideology. The majority of Israelis are just nonreligious. There is a huge difference between being secular and being nonreligious. And when you are nonreligious, you don’t really care what kind of version [of the religion] is in control for the people whom it is relevant for their lives. This indifference can only be dealt with [through] education and dialogue and the ability of a government to tell the Israelis that this is important to us. We need to have immediate and close relations with the diaspora because this is essential and this is important both in terms of ideology and—you know what?—even in terms of national security because of the influence American Jewry has on the administration. So, I don’t think we are in a great spot. I don’t think this is hopeless. I think there’s a lot of work to be done.

To take a step back as we wrap up, there’s Israeli politics and then there’s what’s going on in the world right now, which is kind of inescapable. It’s why we’re having this conversation by video over an ocean. It’s a difficult time for a lot of people, whether they’re in Israel or they’re in America. Many of them are stuck at home, out of work, can’t see their families. Many are sick or know someone who is. Now, Israel has weathered this significantly better than the United States as of now. I was wondering if there’s anything you could share about how Israel, or yourself, cope with what we’ve been dealing with, that might be of use to people back here in the United States?

That’s a great question. Can I tell you one quick—I don’t know if it’s that quick—old Jewish joke?

Of course.

There’s an old Jewish joke about an elderly father from Florida calling his son in New York. He says, “Listen, your mom and I decided to get a divorce.” And the son says, “What? Are you crazy? You’ve been married for 60 years, and you think now is the time to get a divorce?” And the father says, “Yeah, you know what, we never got along really good and we stayed together for you kids, but you are now grown-ups, and you have your own lives, and I don’t want to spend my last years fighting all the time. So we’re getting a divorce, and it’s consenting, it’s OK.” And the son says, “Wait, wait, wait, Dad! I’m getting my sister on the phone from California.” And she gets on the phone and says, “Listen! You two, Dad, Mom. Don’t do anything hasty. Stay home, we are coming over. And let’s talk about this as a family.” So the father says, “You know what, OK. I don’t mind. But I’m telling you, we’ve made up our minds.” They say, “Yeah, but wait there. Give us a few days. We’re coming over.” So he says, “Sure, why not?” He closes the phone, turns to his wife, and says, “They’re coming over for Passover.”

So, I think what happened with the coronavirus—everybody came over for Passover. I saw my children more than I used to, because they are grown-ups, but, you know, in times of trouble, this unbelievable institution of the Jewish family has emerged with all its glory and we have more dialogue. Sometimes it was with Zoom, like the one we’re having right now, and my mother, who’s 85 years old, kept on pushing the button and saying, “Why am I mute?” And everybody shouts, “You’re not on mute! We can hear you!” And it almost looks like a Jackie Mason sketch, and yet the one advice I have is the oldest advice you can give, which is, remember this as an example to the fact that nothing is important like family, and nothing is as strong as the Jewish family. That’s the only, I sounded 85 myself, but this is the only conclusion I took from this time.

With thanks to Elliot Lewis for help with transcription.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.