Yair Lapid: Netanyahu’s 2015 Congress speech ‘was a huge mistake’

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Yair Lapid: Netanyahu’s 2015 Congress speech ‘was a huge mistake’

Opposition figure says the impact of the address was 'the Obama administration negotiated an Iran deal without Israel at the table'

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint session of the US Congress in March 2015
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint session of the US Congress in March 2015

The Yesh Atid (There Is A Future) party leader, Yair Lapid, has said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to Congress “was a huge mistake”. The consequence, he said, was “that the Obama administration negotiated an Iran deal without Israel at the table. After that speech, they were not willing to listen to us at all, not even to our intel (intelligence). And we have a lot to contribute to the  discussion. We need to work closely with the Biden administration in order to get a better deal. We need to be less provocative and more co-operative. The fact that the Netanyahu government is totally identified with the Republican party, with President Trump, is not helpful, because we are now not considered as a bipartisan issue in the US — and we must be”. 

Mr Lapid made his remarks to more than 650 people whose first language is English, in a Yesh Atid webinar on Tuesday night. It is thought to be the biggest “town hall” meeting ever held by an Israeli political party for English speakers, a community often overlooked by the political establishment. 

Yair Lapid gestures as he delivers a speech at his “Yesh Atid” party in Tel-Aviv, early Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Mr Lapid, a former TV journalist and Minister of Finance in 2013-14, has chosen “sane government” as his party’s slogan for the March 23 elections, the fourth election in the last two years.

Yesh Atid is centre left on many social issues, but hawkish on security. It was social issues to the fore during the 75-minute event, during which people asked for commitment from Mr Lapid on helping the economy after COVID lockdowns, on climate change, on electoral law, and on gay rights.

Asked about changing Israel’s electoral law from proportional representation to a more regional system, Mr Lapid said he did not think the country was big enough to support regional representation. But he agreed that the system needed overhauling —  and said he believed the threshold of votes to get into the Knesset needed raising to “at least five or six per cent”. He believed that stability would be achieved if there were a commitment to have a government in place for a defined four years, and that any prime minister should serve a maximum of two terms in office. 

Yesh Atid has two gay Knesset members, one of whom, Yorai-Lahav-Hertzanu, spoke about his desire to get married in Israel and also to have children via surrogacy. Mr Lapid pledged to pass a Surrogacy Bill for gay couples if electorally successful.

Asked if he would “open up the country” on Shabbat, Mr Lapid demurred and said he felt this was a local issue. “We should be smart and not coercive”, he said, adding that while there were secular places where transport and shopping should be available on Shabbat, that was plainly not the case in areas where strictly Orthodox people lived.

A number of questions addressed the extremes of behaviour in Israel, not least the widening split between the secular and Charedi communities and the responses of each to rules relating to COVID. Mr Lapid was blunt: “We will enforce the law”.

Charedi areas would have been disproportionately effected had Israel used local lockdowns

But, citing the Teddy Roosevelt maxim of “speak softly but hold a big stick”, Mr Lapid said: “You have to speak softly if you want to change Israeli discourse, the way we talk to each other, the way we write about each other… you have to start with yourself. You have to lead by example. We will try to create a government which will speak nicely about issues — even those we disagree with — in a polite and civilised manner”.

He said there had been a recent session of Knesset which had become known as “the screaming session, in which government ministers, including the prime minister, sat at two in the morning using language I wouldn’t allow my children to use. We need leadership which doesn’t feel this is the only way to make a point. The big stick element, however, is that rules are going to be enforced, because nobody is going to blackmail or bribe us [Yesh Atid]. If there is a funeral of 20,000 people without masks in Jerusalem, the police are going to be there. We will be doing that to save lives — their lives. Sometimes countries have to step in and say, enough is enough. And we are going to be the ones saying that.”

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