Susan Glasser: Welcome back to The Global Politico, our new podcast on world affairs in the Trump era. This is Susan Glasser, and joining me this week is Yair Lapid, Israel’s leading opposition politician. He’s a fascinating story —a TV anchorman from a famous family, came to politics only a few years ago to start his own party. Now, amazingly, you are leading in poll after poll these days against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and doing so at a crucial time for Israel, when Netanyahu has staked much for the country and his own political future on the new American President Donald Trump. Netanyahu is already Israel’s longest continuously serving prime minister, he finally has what he sees to be a real friend in the White House. So we’ll talk today much more about why it is that Netanyahu, in what should be his big year, is facing so many challenges — including from you, Yair Lapid.
I call him: The Man Who Would Beat Bibi.
Story Continued Below
Yair Lapid: First of all, I’m happy you pronounced my name right because it’s hard. And besides, no, I don’t. You know, we’re trying to do something for the country and for the people. I don’t try to be anyone but me. It’s hard enough being me. [LAUGHS]
Glasser: Fair enough. The late Shimon Peres had a great saying about the polls. He said [LAUGHS] you should smell them like perfume, right?
Lapid: Yes. No, it’s like perfume: you can smell it but don’t try and drink it.
Glasser: Don’t try to drink it. These days, you might be trying to drink it. They’re very good. They reflect the fact that you and your party, Yesh—
Lapid: Yesh Atid.
Glasser: Yesh Atid.
Lapid: There is a future in English.
Glasser: Okay. They reflect the fact that you and your party, Yesh Atid, is leading right now in the surveys. Now we should caveat that in every way possible but the bottom line is that Benjamin Netanyahu has been already the longest-serving continuous prime minister of Israel. He’s on track potentially to become the longest-serving prime minister of Israel since the country was founded. You look potentially to stand in his way. Why do you think it is that you’re getting this kind of support this far out from an election? What is the appeal?
Lapid: Well, I think some of it has to do with what we’re doing and some of it has to do with what you’ve just described. I mean, I can’t think of any other democracy in which the same person was prime minister or president or head of state in 1996 is still the head of state. And, you know, I made it into a rule never to attack the prime minister when I’m abroad or in English because this is not—it’s not done. So I will just say, maybe the people of Israel tell themselves, “It’s time to say thank you and we’re moving on.”
And the country needs to move on. I mean, we’ve been—we’ve been stuck in the same place for quite a while now.
Glasser: Well, let’s talk a little bit about being stuck in the same place and, for Americans, for many people, that conjures the image of the peace process that isn’t and the fact that there’s been such a long stalemate. This year, of course, is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war and this still unresolved question of the territory that was acquired as part of that war in the West Bank and elsewhere. What is your view about whether there’s any possibility to break the stalemate now that there is a new occupant in the White House here in Washington where we’re talking today now that President Netanyahu believes he has someone more favorable to him in the Oval Office?
Lapid: Well, the question is what’s Israel’s policy—Israel’s policy? And Israel’s policy has been for quite a while—and I totally support this—the state solution. We need to separate from the Palestinians. But the main issue for every Israeli is the security of the Israeli people. I’m not sure people understand how post-traumatic we are from the disengagement. Because we’ve done anything the world has ever asked us to do. In 2005, we had completely withdrawn from Gaza and we dismantled all of the settlements that were there. And we gave them the territory that they’ve asked for.
And you know what? We left 3,000 greenhouses for them to be able to start building an economy for themselves. And instead, they’ve demolished the 3,000 greenhouses and since then, fired more than 15,000 rockets over Israel and built terror tunnels and Hamas, a terrible, terrible—and they elected Hamas. Hamas was not—didn’t take Gaza by force. They elected Hamas, a terrible terror organization that has in its manifest, 13 times the call for the total destruction of Israel. So we can’t allow this to happen, you know, five miles from our Knesset and Jerusalem and our capital. And we need to be able to promise our children that separating from the Palestinians doesn’t mean having another ISIS-like state on our border. And that’s the main issue. Because morally, practically, whatever word you want to choose, the majority of Israelis even today believes that the two-state solution and the separation from the Palestinians is the right way to go about it.
Glasser: The right way, but not necessarily a way that’s happening anytime soon. You yourself have said in the past that Mahmoud Abbas is not a partner for peace realistically. That he’s not really able to sign anything, to get anything done. You’ve talked about and have been pushing a more regional process. In many ways, that sounds quite similar to what Prime Minister Netanyahu has been supportive of and what he and Donald Trump are talking about. How is it different?
Lapid: I will claim the credit for being the first person to talk about a regional conference and the regional attitude. I’ve been pushing this for quite a while now. Now, I think the differences—again, I’m not going to—I’m not going to talk against the prime minister of Israel but the difference is in will and the kind of intentions behind words. Again, the majority of Israelis feel this is the right thing to do. And even what I said about President Abbas—this is more of an observation than anything else.
Since the Oslo Accords, there have been 11 rounds of bilateral talks. I was deeply involved in the last one. It was a bunch of tired people saying the same tiring things to each other not even believing a word of what they’re saying. So we need a different approach. And besides, we have ignored the fact that there are other players in this. I mean, you cannot discuss Gaza without the Egyptians because they have a border with Gaza and if there is a siege of Gaza, which is—I know this is the claim but let us remember, around 800 trucks a day comes from Israel with all of the supplies needed in Gaza. We are the suppliers. So you cannot discuss Gaza without the Egyptians. You cannot discuss Jordan Valley without the Jordanians. You cannot discuss the establishment of a Palestinian state unless you bring into the table the Saudis and the Gulf countries and all of those people who are saying, “We are willing to make this happen. We’re willing to finance it and help build the infrastructure.”
So there are other players and the region now is after the Arab Spring of—that started in 2011. It is so taken up with all sorts of other interests that you can’t play the Palestinian story as a cosmos of its own. It is not.
Glasser: All right, well, let’s talk about the T-word for a second, as in Donald Trump. Clearly, in the past, any view of a breakthrough in the peace process has started with the notion of American leadership and American involvement. Trump has assigned his son-in-law to be personally leading his negotiations. He basically has said, “I’m going to make a breakthrough. I’m going to get the deal of the century. The deal that has eluded all of my predecessors as American president.”
And yet, there’s this incredible anxiety because nobody really knows exactly what his policy is. How does it look from Tel Aviv?
Lapid: Well, we are people with a deep historical way of looking at life. So we understand this is a long-term issue. Now, you know what? I’m old enough to remember the first year of the Clinton—Bill Clinton administration, which was as messy, if my memory, serves me. So in all, the American president has now been the president for a month. We’re not into the 100 days yet, right? So we’re willing to wait and I find this encouraging that there is a commitment, that there is a positive way of looking at things. You know what? If you are appointing your son-in-law, then you care about this.
00:08:39 I mean, we know one thing about the son-in-law. Even four or eight years from now, after he’s president, he’s still going to meet him every Friday night. So if you’re putting somebody who is that close to you over there, then it means something. And so, you know, if I have to— nobody goes into politics unless he’s optimistic by nature because it’s such a lousy way of— [LAUGHTER]
Glasser: Well, especially Israeli politics.
Lapid: Yes, so I’m telling you, I’d rather be optimistic about it and there are signs that there is a reason to be optimistic. Now, there is—and you know what? I know everybody says God is in the details. But God is not in the details. God is not in the details. God is in the intentions. God is in the big picture. God has always been into the big picture and the big picture, if you have an American president who is willing to put effort into solving the problem, then it’s a good thing.
Glasser: Now, there was a lot of disillusion in Israel with Barrack Obama in a sense that he was not the one who could make peace in Israel. His efforts, you know, were stymied. What was your view of why there was such a disconnect? Clearly, there was a personal disconnect between the prime minister and the American president, which is never good.
Lapid: Which is never good and some of it was unnecessary. I mean, this is more of an issue for Americans to answer. I think President Obama, who I still believe is a great friend of Israel. I mean, in terms of the—I was a cabinet member. I’m a member of the Security Committee today. In terms of the security connections between the United States and Israel, the Obama administration had better relations than any other administration before, including signing the MOU, the last MOU, which was—so—
Glasser: Which by the way, sent something like $37 billion to Israel.
Lapid: Yes, yes, yes. But you do have to remember, that Israel is in a way, a front for the United States in the Middle East. I mean, this is—it shows the friendship. It shows the deep connections but it also is an American interest in many ways. Of course, we are thankful. I think Israeli’s needs—and we haven’t done this enough with the Obama administration. We do need to stop every now and then and say, “You know what? Thank you. Thanks to the United States for being such a great friend.”
Glasser: We haven’t heard a lot of that, though, I’ve got to say.
Lapid: Yes, so I’m telling you. You know what? I said this on Israeli television so I’m not only saying this in English. I said, you have to stop every now and then and say, “You know what? You’ve been so into our security all of these years and we are thankful. You should know that we are thankful.”
Glasser: Well, if there’s one striking development as a result of this personal rift between the American president, Obama, and the prime minister is a sense that more broadly, for the first time, Israel might be becoming a partisan issue here in the United States and associated with the Republican Party.
I know that’s caused you and others in Israel to worry, really.
Lapid: Yes, and part of the reason I’m now here in Washington is talking to Democrats about the fact that Israel is about the bipartisan issue and we have a lot of Democratic friends in Senate, in Congress and we’re talking to them about this. Some mistakes were done and some fixing is needed but the ties between Israel and the Democrats have been so deep. I think working the right way about—going about it in the right, positive way will help. There’s some bitterness there that needs to be resolved. And you know what? I think they understand the fact that there are various voices in Israel. Israel, like the United States, is not one thing and it doesn’t have one voice.
Democracy has many voices and many views and this is part of the friendship is because we share the same values.
Glasser: Isn’t there a worry at this point though that you could see the rift rather than close up, like you’re suggesting, it could grow wider with Trump in office. Netanyahu has been eagerly courting him ever since the election. He’s already—Trump, I mean—has already caused a lot of awkwardness among Israeli politicians who watch the reluctance with which the president has condemned recent attacks here in the United States. I believe Trump called himself “the least anti-Semitic person.” Is that something you agree with? Do you think there should have been a more vocal condemnation of what’s going on here in America?
Lapid: First of all, yes. And I don’t want to contradict the president but probably the least anti-Semitic person is a Jew. I think it needs to be addressed aggressively. I am the son of a Holocaust survivor. I remember the story of how it starts. Now, I don’t think anything similar to the Holocaust can happen in the United States. But I know that anti-Semitism is always there. It is a flame that is always there, waiting. And you need a very aggressive answer to any kind of anti-Semitic attempts—you know what? Not only because of us.
Because of you, you meaning Americans. This is against anything or everything America ever has stood for. So yes, I think it needs to be addressed with more than words but also with action.
Glasser: I bet when you’re here talking with Democrats in Washington this week, a lot of them were very curious about Israelis—Israel’s politics right now and what it’s like to be an Israeli politician. Many people here in the United States are looking for parallels and trying to understand the Trump era and talking a lot about has Netanyahu provided sort of an early indicator of the kind of right-wing, more hawkish, anti-Islamic terrorism, tough on security approach that Trump might pursue in office. What have you told Democrats about what life is like in Israel politically right now?
Lapid: Well, I’m not sure I agree with the comparison. I mean, the last few months here in the United States were so—unique, I think is the word. You know, both—you could take it—I mean, it depends on what kind of politics do you have but basically, it was—you know, I was interviewed here by your colleague, Jeffrey Goldberg, before the election and he asked me about the election. I said, “Listen, I’m not going to respond to the election but let me tell you one thing. It makes the rest of the world feel really good about themselves.” And yet, it is also—I mean, the question is where are we going from here?
And again, being the optimist, I think what we’re seeing now in terms of the division in the world—this is not only the United States. The Brexit, it’s what’s happening in Europe. I think the center is coming back. I think people are saying, “Wait, wait, wait. You know, this might have gone too far and protest movements are not supposed to lead”—I’m not talking about Trump, of course. I’m talking about—it’s mostly about Europe. But they’re not supposed to lead. They’re supposed to protest and there is similarities between the radical left and the radical right are way too big. And so what we’re talking about is extremists versus people who just want to make sure good things happen.
So I’ve been discussing this now with many people. Many centrist leaders. And if you look at Spain and Greece and Cyprus and now [Emmanuel] Macron might be leading in France. I met with him three—two weeks ago discussing this. You’re going to see the return of the center in the coming years. So I don’t think we’re in the beginning of something. I think we’re in the end of something.
Glasser: You know, it’s fascinating. You talk about the return of the center and I want to come back to that in terms of what it means in Israel. But you’re also an outside, though. It’s just that most of these outsider candidates are running as populists from either the right or the left. But in terms of biography, you are a TV star turned politician. A journalist, in your case, not a reality TV show star. A lot of people have pushed you on what exactly is your ideology. Is it center right? Is it center left?
You come from a renowned family in Israel. Your father, as you mentioned, was not only a Holocaust survivor but a prominent both journalist and politician in Israel. But you’re a new generation. You’re not coming up through the ranks in either the Likud or the Labor Party, the traditional routes to power in Israel. Are you something new? Are you a populist centrist outsider?
Lapid: Well, I’m an extreme moderate. [LAUGHTER] I don’t think so. I think the problem is—and it’s the problem, again, we’re discussing this because it’s the problem of centrists all around the world. You don’t get to say those inflammatory, very interesting things that the extremists from both sides get to say. You are talking on behalf of complexity, and the fact that running a country has to do with conflicting interests. You know, you don’t build a road in the north—if you’re building a road in the north you’re probably not building one in the south. This is how you run the country. If you send your people to the most righteous war, they’re going to die.
And these things need—I think responsibility is the key word. So when you are trying to be a part, at least, of the voice of reason then the extremists tend to tell you, “You know, there’s no ideology there.” And I tend to tell them, “You know what? This is not an ideology. This is a bedtime story somebody told you many years ago and you’re trying to make sure reality fits to it but it doesn’t.” We need to be able to have this kind of discourse that creates a nation.
Glasser: Well, it’s interesting, right, that basically, politics hasn’t quite moved on as far as these populations have moved on. You know, and the old politics that you’re talking about. These old bedtime stories clearly are outdated in some ways. You see in Europe and the United States and in Israel too, right? A struggle for what’s the new politics that’s going to follow. We’ve talked a bit about—
Lapid: Can I say a word about this?
Lapid: Listen, I gave you an example, the Brexit because it’s safe ground when I’m in the States. [LAUGHTER] Now, when I was minister of finance—so I had to deal with the EU, you know, the agreements, the paper—just the paperwork of the relation, the connection between the EU. and the country, is big enough to fill the Mirror Hall in Versailles Palace, okay? [LAUGHS]
And then they said, “No, but we’re going to summarize it to a yes or no question.” This doesn’t make any sense. The idea about democracies is that you elect people and you say, “You know, you’re going to deal with all of those really complicated issues that I don’t have time to deal with because I’m, I’m busy making a living or raising my children. And they took it and they said, “You know what? We are going to make sure the world is either black or white, either yes or no.” This cannot last.
If democracies want to survive, this cannot last.
Glasser: So we’ve talked a bit about American democracy and whether it’s under attack at the moment. Let’s talk about Israeli democracy for a second. Many activists are very up in arms right now, very concerned about some recent—what they view as assaults on civil society. There’s the new legislation that basically would ban from Israel people who are advocating a boycott because of the situation with the West Bank. Do you support that legislation? Do you see that as—
Lapid: No, I voted for—against the majority but not all of it. Some of it is a democracy has the right to protect themselves. I mean, in this country, even the most liberal administrations have legislated against terrorism, against, you know, direct attacks on the country’s soul and soil. Having said that, since we’ve discussed this as legislation, all of those people are saying they’re worried. How come they’re not worried about what is happening on the other side of the border?
You know, I was in Sweden recently and there was a demonstration against me being there, and people were raising their flags saying—raising their signs saying “Free Palestine.” And all I wanted—security wouldn’t allow me to—was to approach them and tell them, “Listen, okay. I’m all for freedom. Freedom is a great thing. But did you ever bother to check what kind of freedom we’re talking about?” Because of these—the signs, your sign owners saying, “Free the people who are hanging gay people from telephone poles. Free the people who think it’s okay to beat your wife if she’s disobeying. Free the people who burn churches and kill Jewish children because they’re Jewish and Christian children because they’re Christian.”
So you have to make—and instead of doing that, they’re criticizing the only democracy in the Middle East. That yes, sometimes the legislation is not what some liberals expect it to be. And yet, it’s legislation of a democratic country in which we’re just recently—and I’m giving this as an example—an Arabic Supreme Court justice has sent the prime minister to jail. This doesn’t happen in countries which are not democratic.
Glasser: We didn’t say that Israel’s not democratic and I don’t think that’s really the argument. I’m just curious, for you as a politician, this must be a difficult issue to navigate. You are yourself a former journalist, a writer. This is fundamentally a speech issue that we’re talking about in terms of banning people for the views that they hold.
Lapid: Yes, I don’t think that people should be banned from the views that they hold. And this is not really happening in Israel. This is the propaganda about the things that are happening—I’m not saying, of course, that you are doing this. I’m saying that what happened is whenever somebody’s legislating about— again, we don’t have a First Amendment, but if we had, it is well-protected.
I can tell you this as somebody who was a journalist for many years. And yet, the country is preoccupied, like most countries, I think, with the fact that with social networks, with the BDS movement, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. With the world of alternative facts, the country is under attack. The country is under attack by people who think lying is just okay. And you used the word “to navigate”. You’re right. It’s navigation. There’s no absolute truth. There’s no way of handling it in a way that everybody is going to be happy. So you just stumble your way trying to protect free speech in the country on one hand and the country on the other. And this is—as people, we came out of the Holocaust with two contradicting conclusions.
One is that we have to survive. We have to survive. I mean, nobody is going to come to the rescue, no cavaliers. I mean, they didn’t come. And that is that we have to be moral people. And because morality is tested only under immoral circumstances. And these two conflicts on a daily basis in Israel and you don’t have a solution, a one moment of enlightenment in which you know what to do. You just work on it on a day-to-day basis and this is what we’re trying to do. Let me remind you, in the worst neighborhood on Earth.
Glasser: You mentioned your dad before and the fact that he was a Holocaust survivor. I’m always interested in what drives people into politics and, this has become a little bit the family business. What do you think he would make of Israeli politics today?
Lapid: He would probably be a bit worried and happy for me because we’re doing well now. He took Israel very personally. For him, it was the answer for so many things. This kid that someday, the door opens and a German soldier stands there with a black uniform, the Gestapo and taking his father and he never sees him again.
And somehow, he managed to get through the Holocaust, get through the—with the ghetto. And somehow, he managed to arrive in Israel in 1948 when the country was established and somehow managed to create a family. So for him, it was personal. And if there was one thing I took from him—in the four or five days before he died, we were in the hospital together. He was blunt about it like he was about everything. He was a blunt man. He wasn’t afraid of anything. And he said, “You know, I’m going to die.” And I said, “No, dad.” And he said, “Oh, come on.” And he said, “You have to remember, I’m not leaving you only with family but also with a country.”
And so this is the way I was brought up.
The country is a very personal issue and it has to be treated as such.
Glasser: That makes you almost the quintessential Israeli. When you entered politics, I guess you didn’t necessarily know where it was going, but there’s a great anecdote, I think when you met Barrack Obama on his visit to Israel in 2013. And he met you and he said, “Be careful what you wish for.”
Lapid: Yes, he said, “My wife always tells me, “Be careful what you wish for.” I don’t want to be careful about what I wish for because I don’t wish it to myself. It’s a time for my generation to take over and it’s a duty. It’s not a privilege. I treat it as per the fact that people support me and vote for me is a privilege.
But the fact that we have—there’s a burden there that needs to be taken very seriously. So yes, I wish for it. But I think Israel has ahead of it great things. I truly believe that. I think the potential is unbelievable and I think—I just read this morning that Intel just bought an Israeli company that is doing unbelievable things for, I don’t know, $15 billion because the kind of smartness that is in the air of Israel. You’ve been to Israel. You know that.
There’s something so vital about the people, about the atmosphere. So I think great things are ahead of us if we’ll do the right things. And therefore, I don’t want to be careful about what I wish for because I wish it for my country.
Glasser: Now, you have been careful and I totally understand why about the prime minister’s legal troubles, the accusations around lavish gifts and things like that. But it’s clear right now that Israeli politicians, including you, are mobilizing in the expectation that there might be elections sooner than in the next two years when they were originally going to be. Is that your view? And can you just sum up for me quickly, what will your pitch to Israeli voters be? Will you talk about the need for cleaner governance?
Lapid: Yes. I think—I will say this very carefully: I think anywhere in the world, when governments have been in office for too long, they tend to corrupt and it needs to be addressed. And I’m going to talk quite a bit about the fact that you need clean government as—it’s a means—it’s a tool. As a way of handling a country as complicated as Israel—as Israel. Israel is not a corrupted country, per se. I mean, in real corrupt—I mean, in countries that are real corrupted, the prime minister—the former prime minister is in jail.
We had like a few months—it was embarrassing, in which the prime minister and the president—both were in jail. And it’s embarrassing and yet it comes to show the kind of strength Israel has as a law-abiding country. Now, again, you know what? I’m—if you were to bring to this interview a polygraph, I would pass a test saying, “I wish to God that Prime Minister Netanyahu gets out of all of this legal trouble with no—with not a scratch because this is not the way I want to win an election.” And this is—this would be just terrible for the country, two prime ministers in a row. So—and I don’t like the fact they involved his wife and his children. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.
But I do think that Israelis understand that we need something that is new and clean and different. We cannot allow—unlike other countries—I mean, in the United States and just I’m saying as an observer. It always seems like the president is the complete opposite of the president before him. I mean, President Trump seems like the complete opposite of Obama and President Obama was the complete opposite of President Bush, who was the complete opposite of President Clinton, and so on and so forth.
In Israel, we don’t take such swift moves. I mean, we are—the existential threats—I mean, there’s no existential threats on the United States. There are very clear existential threats on Israel so we are more careful and our politics is more careful. But it’s time to move on.
Glasser: You know, I think this is a perfect note to end on. We’ll look forward to coming and seeing you during the course of the campaign, whenever it—
Lapid: It’s going to be this year.
Glasser: You think it’s going to be this year?
Lapid: Yes, I think it’s going to be this year.
Glasser: All right.
Lapid: This is—this is how we prepare.
Glasser: Okay, you heard it here first. Early elections in Israel. We’ll come and visit you. Yair Lapid, thank you so much for joining us here in Washington today on The Global POLITICO. We hope that you’ll listen to The Global POLITICO, sign up for it on iTunes, subscribe, and give us feedback at SGlasser@POLITICO.com. Thank you again for listening.
Lapid: Thank you.