Israel’s ‘voice of normality’

Israel’s ‘voice of normality’

Late into their recent dialogue at the 92nd Street Y, Charlie Rose was trying to pin down Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid on the subject of Iran.

“Charlie, there is no language barrier,” said Lapid. “The reason I didn’t answer you is not because I didn’t understand.”

The audience laughed appreciatively, enjoying perhaps their first in-person glimpse of Israel’s most exportable political talent since — well, since Benjamin Netanyahu lit up Nightline as Israel’s ambassador to the United States. A seasoned television interviewer and newspaper columnist, Lapid surprised everyone but himself in leading his Yesh Atid party to 19 seats in the 2012 Knesset elections.

Telegenic and witty, Lapid displayed the kind of centrism that itself can be divisive. For his fans, he represents a “third way” in Israel, between the hardline stances of the Likud and the squishy idealism of what used to be Labor. For his detractors, he can be maddeningly opaque — “Lapid’s medium is vagueness,” New York Times columnist Roger Cohen once wrote.

There was ammunition for both views during his hour-long talk with Rose on Oct. 8. As he has said before, Lapid explained that he is committed to the peace process and a two-state solution and sees the current U.S.-led initiative as a window of opportunity.

Rose pushed back, however, reminding him of some of the stances he took in a New York Times interview last May. Lapid told the Times that Israel should not change its settlements policy — which includes “natural expansion” and financial incentives — in order to revive the peace process, nor allow Jerusalem to serve as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

If so, asked Rose, how are you different from Bibi Netanyahu?

Lapid joked about being misquoted, and then asserted that he was “devoted to the peace process” and the two-state solution. He conceded that “some settlers will be evacuated” and that “there will be swaps.”

When Rose pressed harder and asked about borders, Lapid changed from politician to tactician. “You don’t tell in advance what you are willing to give up,” he said.

The conversation never settled the question of whether Lapid would indeed chart a different course on the peace process than Netanyahu, or if he is keeping his views purposely vague as the good, and ambitious, politician that he is. Lapid didn’t budge on the Jerusalem issue, for instance, where even an old Likudnik like Ehud Olmert saw room for compromise. Later, when an obviously frustrated audience member asked why Israel would want to absorb the 250,000 Arab residents of east Jerusalem, Lapid offered a lyrical answer. Israel is “not a place but also an ideal, and Jerusalem is the essence of this ideal. And yes, there are…rational reasons to say, ‘Okay, I am giving up on eastern Jerusalem.’ But countries can’t survive without an ethos, and the ethos of Israel is in eastern Jerusalem.”

The applause was boisterous. But did Lapid consider all the Arab villages that have been absorbed into the Jerusalem municipality over the years part of an “undivided Jerusalem”? He didn’t say, and Rose didn’t ask.

In some ways, Lapid is a perfect reflection of the position articulated by the mainstream pro-Israel and Jewish groups. They support the two-state solution, are reluctant to criticize the settlements, and tend to blame the Arabs for the failures of the peace process. Jerusalem is sacrosanct. As for the hard questions of what Israel would give up in return for “peace and security,” those who aren’t outright opposed to “concessions” will explain that you don’t lay your cards on the table at the start of negotiations.

From what I could tell, the audience at the Y was less partisan than what I’ve come to expect at Jewish events. The talk was sponsored by the Israel Policy Forum, a staunch supporter of the peace process, but a lot of the applause — enthusiastic, but hardly unanimous — greeted Lapid’s more “conservative” positions. Were Lapid running for office here, he’d make a great bridge candidate between right and left.

Apparently, many Israeli voters were looking for such a bridge figure, especially one who would turn the conversation away from the conflict and toward issues like the economy, education, and the division between religion and state. “I was aiming at…being the voice of normality,” Lapid told Rose. “Normality means somebody who is dealing with life not in this huge dramatic version of ‘Here we are fighting for the people’…but someone speaking and asking, ‘Why did they open kindergarten at 9 when I start work at 8? Why is the level of education in Israel falling?’ I was dealing with real problems of real people all my life.”

Israelis yearn for this kind of normality, and American Jews pray they achieve it. But the huge dramatic questions are always out there, and you can only hope that politicians like Lapid will have the right and specific answers when they are needed.

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