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Lapid in U.S. Talks Challenges for Peace and Israeli Prosperity

New York—Finance Minister Yair Lapid spoke with Charlie Rose twice on October 7. One conversation was for national broadcast. The second, at the 92Y in Manhattan, was for a more intimate audience of about 1,000 members of the Jewish community—Americans, Israelis in America and a cadre of Jewish community leaders. Teaneck raised MK Rabbi Dov Lipman, who made aliyah after serving as a pulpit rabbi in Baltimore, and called a “good friend” by the Minister, was in the audience.

Lapid is a founder of the Israeli political party Yesh Atid – There is a Future. Among its platform positions is limitation on the number of political parties in Israel. Lapid wants to “raise the threshhold” for entry in the political system by raising the electoral percentage required to gain a seat in the Knesset. He noted that he had considered forming “a new concept” in Israeli politics for over a decade. “Israeli politics was covered with everything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I felt there are other things as well: housing, education, the complicated relations of state and religion….Let’s have a party that will…talk about different issues.”

“I was the only person in the country not surprised” when Yesh Atid won 19 seats,” Lapid commented. “You have to be a genuine optimist to form your own party—a party for the lost generation’s voice.”

Charlie Rose rose to the challenge. “Was celebrity a reason or was it the real needs of the middle class” that encouraged Lapid to enter politics?” he asked.

“It’s both,” admitted Lapid. “It is about the State of Israel and its future.” The Finance Minister acknowledged that “in Israel, personality is important. I was aiming at being the more normal, somebody who is dealing with life not in the huge, dramatic version…We have to work with the normal details of life—the real problems of real people.”

“Are you more normal than the Prime Minister?” ribbed Rose.

Refusing to be drawn into hard politics—at this point—Lapid called Netanyahu ”pretty normal,” and countered, asking Rose “how normal can you be, sitting on stage with Charlie Rose?” Lapid segued into a recollection of his feelings sitting on another stage, that one in Budapest, during the dedication of a Foundation to fight antisemitism. He recalled the story of his father’s 1945 escape from Nazi and Hungarian troops—the same uniforms he saw in the audience—who killed close to 600 Jews by shooting them in the Danube. The same building which once had signs reading “no dogs, no Jews” now invited him to be honored on its stage.

“What did you discover about antisemitism today?” Rose asked.

Lapid responded with telling simplicity, stating clearly “It exists.”

The discussion turned to policy issues. Lapid, who is a supporter of the “two-state” solution, said policy on the “settlements” should not be changed—although there will be swaps—and that Jerusalem should remain the capital of Israel and “never be divided. You don’t negotiate in the Middle East by telling what you will do… The conflict is not, and never was, about land. It is basically about hatred, fear and bad memories.

“What we need to do is understand the fundamentals. Palestinians want peace and justice; Israel wants peace and security.”

Security, Lapid emphasized, is a fluid concept: “People define security in different ways. Security is circumstantial, constantly changing….What we want to do is make sure no one is trying to kill us. I m not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, I am looking for a divorce.”

One difference between Finance Minister Lapid and Prime Minister Netanyahu clearly defined in the dialogue with Rose is the PM’s ongoing demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish State. “We recognize Israel as the Jewish State and don’t need authorization from anyone else,” Lapid declared, to strong applause. His remarks subsequently garnered heavy criticism from Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a member of the Likud Yisrael Beiteinu.

As in every discussion of the Middle East, the specter of Iran is a constant presence.

“Do you think Iran has changed?” asked Rose. “Can they do things to satisfy the Prime Minister and the Israeli people?”

Said Lapid, “The problem we have with Iran is that they are building nuclear weapons….If they only want nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, then give up the centrifuges, dismantle the 80,000 centrifuges and the plutonium reactor. Anything that is partial and gradual is bad.”

“Israel has a different red line than the United States.” Lapid recalled President Obama’s statement that the U.S. “will not allow nuclear weapons, but said, “There seems to be a difference in the U.S.’s and Israel’s estimates.”

When Rose asked, “Should Israel act alone?” Lapid chose not to answer, explaining “I didn’t answer—not because I didn’t understand the language.”

Rose pushed, asking, “Is there anything thing the United States has done that makes you question reliance on us?”

No longer journalist or commentator, Yair Lapid is now the target of his former colleagues’ questions; his answers are the subject of their analyses. As Finance Minister, he creates policies that affect every Israeli business and most citizens.

“Should the business community be concerned?” Rose queried.

Lapid assured him that “I’m pro-business. As a politician,” Lapid said “raising taxes is risky.” He said high level bi-partisanship efforts (a comment that elicited more than a little laughter from the Americans in the audience) We are trying to reach out to other parties and politicians—…The people who voted for us think we are doing a world of good… Social change is always difficult.”

Despite divergent political positions on international issues, part of that outreach has led to cooperation with Naphtali Bennett, leader of the right wing Beit Yehudi—Jewish Home—party. Their cooperation is aimed at creating positive social change, including improved education, housing availability and greater integration of the religious population into the IDF and general Israeli society. Lapid is especially concerned with the middle class which “everywhere feels it has created growth yet is not fruitful enough for them…In order for an economy to be functional, it is necessary to help the middle class.”

“If you were Prime Minister,” mused Charlie Rose…

Lapid immediately interjected, “I am in no hurry,” saying he hoped to have a government with energy to work together. “I did not come into politics to let things stay the way they are. I came to politics to make a change, the peace process included… It was time to put my money where my mouth is.”

Lapid noted that the problems between the secular and the religious will always be a problem in Israel. “We are doing our best to make sure that religion will be set apart from politics. There will always be tension.”

Loudest applause followed Lapid’s statement that, within three years, the majority of haredi young men would serve in the IDF. Rose asked about problems of military discipline, especially with regard to IDF officers who may have to act in the settlements. In response, Lapid said with resolute certainty, “This is gossip….If push comes to shove, they will listen to their officers, not to their rabbis.”

By Maxine Dovere

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