Lapid’s whirlwind tour shows a different Israel to world

In just four weeks in office, Yair Lapid, the architect of Israel’s new coalition government, has spent much of his time overseas, signalling a determination to set a new tone in foreign relations after the divisive 12-year reign of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Since the eight-party coalition was voted in last month, Lapid, the foreign minister, has opened the first Israeli embassy in the UAE, jetted to Rome for consultations with US secretary of state Antony Blinken, travelled to Amman for talks with his Jordanian counterpart and addressed EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

“It’s been too long — there is a new government, a new energy, let’s head to a new beginning,” Lapid said in Brussels on Monday, the first Israeli official to address formally Europe’s Foreign Affairs Council in more than a decade.

“Israel shares interests with the EU, but more than that, it shares values with the EU,” he added, citing human and LGBT rights, the climate crisis, terrorism and democratic touchstones such as a free press, strong civil society and freedom of religion.

Lapid, a centrist former TV journalist, was the key figure in pulling the disparate coalition together, united solely by the desire to oust Netanyahu. That the EU extended the invitation to Lapid, and that he responded positively and made the trip, was not lost on European officials, long frustrated with Netanyahu’s policies on West Bank settlements, Iran, and internal European politics.

May’s conflict in Gaza also sparked condemnation of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. It is unclear what will change substantially. But Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, said on Monday: “We have a chance for a fresh start and for strengthening our bilateral relations.”

Lapid, left, meeting US secretary of state Antony Blinken in Rome, Italy on June 27 © Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

A European diplomat added: “Netanyahu not being there is an immense opportunity [on a wide variety of issues], and after many years the Israeli foreign ministry under Lapid is back to being a centre of power,”

The Israeli government, billed as a “change coalition”, has also sought to mend ties with the US Democratic party in Washington, downplaying public differences on the Iran nuclear issue and highlighting its willingness for progress on the Palestinian conflict.

Top Israeli officials have met representatives from all of the country’s Middle Eastern allies, a sign to the Israeli public that there is life after Netanyahu, who inked peace deals with several of them and in election campaigns touted himself as a “league apart” on the world stage.

Prime minister Naftali Bennett met Jordan’s King Abdullah secretly in Amman last week, Axios first reported, after years of disconnect between the monarch and Netanyahu.

Netanyahu was infamous for monopolising all foreign policy decision-making and using populist governments in eastern and central Europe to divide the EU and forestall any criticism of Israel.

Yair Netanyahu, the former premier’s son and political adviser, had called the EU an “enemy of Israel” and an “evil globalist organisation”, while wishing electoral luck to rightwing figures such as Nigel Farage, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and Holland’s Geert Wilders.

The Israeli government is clear that it does not want to jettison ties with nationalist governments; Bennett recently spoke with Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and Russian president Vladimir Putin. Rather, according to one senior Israeli government official, the approach is to “broaden our alliances, and work with a wider set of countries”.

Israeli analysts point to Netanyahu’s indifference to the backlash in the US Democratic party of his strong embrace of Donald Trump, and public feuds with Barack Obama, as one such example of choosing expedient allies over Israel’s long-term interests. 

“He believed that as long as he remained in power he could bring any fallout under control and it wouldn’t exact a price either from him or Israel,” said Tal Shalev, political correspondent for Walla News.

Israel under Bennett remains opposed to a US return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but the prime minister has vowed that differences with Washington will be managed discreetly behind closed doors.

Still, international officials are clear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue to be an impediment to improved foreign ties with some countries.

“A credible engagement, a stronger relationship with Israel needs to revive a path towards peace and justice for Israelis and Palestinians . . . alike,” Borrell said, while nodding to the “special composition” of the new Israeli government.

The Israeli coalition spans the ideological gamut, including pro-settler figures such as Bennett, an ultranationalist who has in the past advocated the annexation of the West Bank, centrists such as Lapid, leftwing groups and an Arab party. Lapid, who will take over from Bennett as prime minister as part of the coalition deal, in Brussels touted his support for a two-state solution, even as he admitted that a breakthrough was unlikely in the near term.

“No one [in this government] is taking any big steps on the Palestinian issue, like [West Bank] annexation, new settlements, or for that matter final status peace talks,” the senior Israeli official said. “But there is room for progress and a more positive environment.”

Western officials have been encouraged by the new government’s willingness to engage on practical steps to improve economic conditions and stability in the West Bank and Gaza.

In recent weeks Israel has offered a million Covid-19 vaccines to the Palestinian Authority (which the Palestinians later rejected), agreed to bolster trade ties between Jordan and the West Bank, inked an expanded water deal with Jordan, and resurrected joint ministerial economic projects with the PA — all steps Netanyahu refused to take. Joe Biden’s administration is expected to advocate bolstering the Palestinian business sector in the West Bank and reducing friction between Israeli security forces and Palestinians, several people briefed on the plans said.

Whether such efforts are enough to forestall another military escalation in Gaza or unrest in the West Bank is unclear. And a major test for the new government will be its policies on Palestinian home evictions in East Jerusalem and settlement construction in the West Bank.

“There is optimism [regarding the Israeli government] but within a very realistic set of parameters,” the European diplomat added. “It’s a diverse coalition with extreme differences. The question is what such a coalition can load bear.” 

Additional reporting by Valentina Pop in Brussels

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