Addressing the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 22, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid returned the two-state solution to center stage. “Despite all the obstacles, still today a large majority of Israelis support the vision of this two-state solution. I am one of them,” said Lapid.
Still, while the stage and the audience were international, Lapid’s words were directed to Israeli public opinion. In fact, more than a diplomatic speech, it was a political speech at the height of an election campaign. Clearly, the speech should allow Lapid to assume the mantle of the leader of Israel’s center-left, and the bloc’s candidate for the role of prime minister.
More in details, this move was aimed mostly to draw voters away from Defense Minister Benny Gantz, chairman of the National Unity party, and to hurt the latter’s campaign for prime minister.
Indeed, the two are running against each other for the role within the center-left bloc. This is the reason that neither Gantz nor any members of his party responded publicly to Lapid’s speech. Of course, Gantz could not criticize a vision that he shares, as does the third candidate on his party list, former Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot. But for now he preferred to ignore Lapid, who had upstaged him.
In this respect, Gantz has reason to worry. Lapid heads the largest party in the bloc, while Gantz has not managed to rise in the polls and has even weakened. It may be that his clear position on supporting the two-state solution will increase his power, because it will be interpreted in the center-left camp as “courageous” and as displaying leadership.
In contrast to Gantz, the left-wing parties in his camp praised Lapid.
Chairwoman of the Labor party Meirav Michaeli congratulated Lapid “for a Zionist speech at the podium of the United Nations tonight that is important and strategic for the State of Israel. The Labor party will continue to support and advance the Israeli interest of a diplomatic agreement that will ensure Israel’s continued flourishing and the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Heading those attacking Lapid was chairman of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu, who accused Lapid of moves that will endanger the security future of the State of Israel.
“A speech that is all weakness, defeat and surrender,” Netanyahu said about Lapid in a recorded response. "After the right-wing government led by me removed the Palestinian state from the world agenda, after we brought four historic peace agreements with Arab countries that bypassed the Palestinian veto, Lapid is bringing the Palestinians back to the forefront of the world stage and putting Israel right into the Palestinian hole."
Netanyahu, in the throes of his campaign to return to the prime minister’s office, used Lapid’s move in order to consolidate the support of right-wing voters who truly fear the two-state vision.
Chairman of right-wing Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich continued with Netanyahu’s line, saying that Lapid’s words “cover up a shameful surrender to terrorism and a drive to divide the country, give away territories and expel thousands of Jews from their homes."
He noted, “Lapid and Gantz returned the Palestinian Authority to the center of the discourse and the international stage, instilled hope in the sails of Palestinian nationalism, and the citizens of Israel are already feeling the results in waves of terrorism and a dangerous escalation in Judea and Samaria [West Bank]."
Criticism of Lapid has also come from representatives of the right inside the coalition. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked tweeted, “Yair Lapid speaks only for himself when he supports a Palestinian state. This is just an election stunt. We will never allow the creation of a Palestinian terror state in the heart of the land of Israel. Such a state would be a hotbed of extremism, terror and regional instability.”
Shaked, chairwoman of the Jewish Home party, is in a bad state in the polls, and has tried, it seems, by means of this response, to stir her potential voter base. Recently, she had said she regretted sitting in the current government, and stated she will back Netanyahu after the Nov. 1 elections.
Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett opposed Lapid even before his speech. A day before the address, Bennett posted on Facebook, “There is no place or logic to raise the idea of a Palestinian state.” According to him, when he was prime minister, he made sure, “not to fight with the whole world for no reason, but also not to capitulate for no reason.”
Lapid surely expected all these internal Israeli reactions. Still, he chose to use the speech at the UN in order to present a leadership vision. The esteemed setting and his meetings with leaders such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Jordan’s King Abdullah have allowed him to present his position as prime minister of Israel. The speech he gave in good English added to his image as someone who conducts himself with ease on a world stage.
The center-left voter base believes in the two-stage idea and Lapid, who had once winked to the right, has adopted the central idea of this camp. This, as noted, hurts Gantz, but also Michaeli who has presented herself as the successor of [late] Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The estimate is that Lapid mostly hopes to rouse the Arab voting public, which according to all polls is frustrated and disappointed and does not intend to vote en masse. The lower the Arab voting rates will be, the greater Netanyahu’s chances of achieving 61 mandates and returning to the prime minister’s office. Thus, it is important to Lapid to send a message to Israeli Arabs that he is their leader, and seeks the integration of Israeli Arabs in society in politics.
It is too early to know if Lapid’s message was well accepted by Arab voters. On the other hand, Arab Knesset members choose to respond in a distant fashion. The Hadash-Taal party said, “While Lapid’s speech started with warmongering and propaganda, it ended with a call for solving the crisis with two states. If we stream to the polling stations, we will be in a position to force him to stand by his word and to work to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel.”
In the meantime, polls published Sept. 22 point to gains for Netanyahu and the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox blocs.