Yair Lapid conducts damage control with wavering allies: Democrats and American Jews

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  April 15, 2023

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid made a low-key visit to the U.S. this week to shore up unconditional support among Democrats and American Jews, and to bolster his case as an alternative to Netanyahu.

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid made a low-key visit to the United States this week. It was a damage control mission on numerous levels, for Israel and for Lapid personally. 

With Congress in recess, Lapid came to New York instead of Washington. The objective was to address concerns in the Jewish pro-Israel community over the massive protests in Israel against the right-wing Israeli government’s plan, under Benjamin Netanyahu, to “reform” the judicial system so that Jews, too, would be denied at least some basic democratic rights.

The meeting arranged for Lapid by the United Jewish Appeal-Jewish Federation included groups spanning much of the pro-Israel, from the religious-right Orthodox Union to the liberal-centrist Israel Policy Forum. Reports from the meeting indicate Lapid was given a warm welcome. 

His message was an attempt to shore up unconditional support of Israel. “Jews in the US and Canada should never give up on Israel,” Lapid said. “Governments come and go, but the State of Israel will remain. Israel’s connection to the Jewish diaspora is now more important than ever.”

It’s a weak argument, but it’s all Lapid has to offer these groups right now. The fight over the so-called “judicial reform” has been paused for the moment, but Netanyahu has been clear that, while he hopes to get more Israelis on board with his plan, he intends to move forward. Israeli protesters have continued taking to the streets, albeit in somewhat diminished numbers during this “pause.” His idea of a compromise has been called “rotten” by his own former defense minister, the right-wing Moshe Ya’alon. So, what, really, does Lapid have to reassure Americans that they won’t soon be unable to use the threadbare propaganda about Israel being the “only democracy in the Middle East?”

Biden’s silent complicity

The Biden administration has been clear about its distaste for the “judicial overhaul” and its hope that Netanyahu would alter this course. But it has been much less forthright about violence against Palestinians and about the long-term impact of a potential Israeli decision to abandon even the façade of democracy.

For example, the State Department did not see fit to depart from its typical obfuscation of Israeli crimes when asked about the violence at Al-Aqsa. After Israel’s brutal assault on Muslim worshippers there, Spokesperson Vedant Patel did not even mention the Israeli violence or its blatant violation of the status quo.

Instead, he spoke as if events just happened, with no human agency responsible, saying, “We are concerned by the scenes out of Jerusalem. And it is our viewpoint that it is absolutely vital that the sanctity of holy sites be preserved. We emphasize the importance of upholding the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem and any unilateral action that jeopardizes the status quo to us is unacceptable. We call for restraint, coordination, and calm during the holiday season.” In the same press conference, he did find room to condemn Palestinian violence against Israel, in the form of ineffectual rockets, stating that “Israel has the legitimate right to defend itself against all forms of aggression.”

In an even more bizarre episode, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides tweeted out a photo of himself with the political and spiritual leaders of one faction of the United Torah Judaism party, a member of the current governing coalition which backs major parts of the judicial reform as well as other laws aimed at securing theocratic rule in Israel. He captioned the photo, “A great honor to receive blessings from Rabbi Edelstein on Passover with MK Moshe Gafni.” 

The message from the Biden administration that Israel’s headlong dive into explicit fascism is a matter of inconvenience, not a threat to relations, in Washington couldn’t be clearer. Still, that reflects this particular administration’s fecklessness. Lapid understands that the future of the Democratic party is not Joe Biden. 

Lapid’s goals for Israel

Although he primarily came to meet with the Jewish groups, Lapid also found time to meet with two staunch Democratic allies in Congress, New York Congressmembers Jerry Nadler and Ritchie Torres. 

Nadler was the leader of a letter in early March from 16 Jewish congress-members expressing their “concern” over the attempt to gut Israel’s judiciary. Notably, the letter was addressed to Netanyahu, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, and Lapid as opposition leader, an unusual move, and one that hints at the distaste among Democrats for Netanyahu. 

Nadler is also a long-time pro-Israel voice in Congress, and among the more influential Democrats. He is enough of an Israel backer to have been endorsed by AIPAC in the 2022 election, but also supports the illusory two-state solution enough that J Street endorsed him too. That positioning makes him key for Lapid, who has long-standing and deep connections to the Democratic party, an asset that, due to the increasing support for Palestine among Democratic voters, is at once rarer yet less valuable than it once was. 

Unable to convincingly reassure his supporters that the far-right putsch in Israel wouldn’t succeed, Lapid came to urge the Jewish organizations and friendly members of Congress that they should support Israel regardless. He found a willing audience in Torres, who, as a perceived “progressive” and an Afro-Latino, gay Representative who is fanatically pro-Israel checks all the boxes to become the newest rising star in AIPAC’s eyes. 

Just three days before Lapid’s arrival in New York, Torres—who had been mysteriously silent about the issues in Israel—published a letter in a local newspaper, imploring that “Cooler minds must prevail.” While opposing the changes Netanyahu wants, Torres’ emphasis was elsewhere: “The usual detractors have been rushing to exploit the current controversy in Israel as an excuse for conditioning aid. I reject these cynical attempts empathetically. The U.S. commitment to programs like Iron Dome — which protects civilians from rocket fire and de-escalates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — should, and must, remain unconditional. Period.”

Torres, like most Democrats who are wringing their hands with anxiety over Israel dropping all pretense to democracy, made no mention of Israel’s escalations against the Palestinians, or even the brutal Israeli attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque. 

Unconditional aid to Israel, whether it’s Iron Dome or any other armaments, is patently illegal under the Arms Export Control Act and Foreign Assistance Act, as it would be to any other country. Those laws require certain standards of any country receiving arms—whether granted or sold—from the United States. No matter how much Congress ignores those laws, they are still on the books. 

But Torres’ argument is in lockstep with Lapid’s plea to support Israel regardless of how blatantly authoritarian it becomes. The “usual detractors” to whom Torres refers include Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman, who led a letter from progressive Democrats recently calling for an examination of the use of U.S.-supplied arms to Israel in light of the recent events. Unlike Torres, that letter reflected concern for the escalation in Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians. Notably, Lapid did not decide to try to meet Bowman, as he could have while in New York. That he would see such a meeting as futile speaks well of Bowman. 

Lapid’s self-interest

Lapid’s trip is also a desperate attempt to shore up his own position as the alternative to Netanyahu. A poll which came out last week showed a massive drop in support for Netanyahu and his Likud party, something which would normally be a huge win for the opposition leader. But Lapid’s Yesh Atid party is not the beneficiary of Likud’s losses. 

Instead, the National Unity party, led by Benny Gantz, has gotten a huge boost. The recent poll shouldn’t be relied on too much; like any poll, it’s a snapshot of a particular moment in time, and the loss it reflected for the current governing coalition was much bigger than polls just a few days earlier. Moreover, there’s little danger of the current government falling in the near term. 

But Lapid’s standing has actually been declining for weeks. This is primarily due to the fact that Gantz has been speaking more frequently against “judicial reform” and because the internal instability, along with the attacks by Palestinians in response to Israel’s increased aggression have Israelis turning to Gantz and his military background rather than Lapid, whose experience is more in public relations and diplomacy. 

Doubtless, Lapid is hoping that his standing among Democrats will help him get support from the United States. Despite the hostility shown by some far-right Israelis toward Joe Biden, most still understand the massive support Democrats give to Israel. 

But how much of that American support can Lapid himself count on? Israel’s more centrist supporters in the U.S. seem to have more faith in Gantz than Lapid, despite the fact that Lapid has put a lot more effort into ingratiating himself to American supporters. While Lapid’s meeting with at least a couple of members of Congress underscores the cold shoulder Biden continues to turn toward Netanyahu, it says little about his own political stock. Instead, it’s Gantz, who once boasted about how many “Arabs” he’d killed, who is seen as the real opposition leader. 

For Palestinians, of course, it makes little difference. Lapid was no better than Naftali Bennett or Netanyahu in his treatment of Palestinians under occupation. But the perception in both Israel and the United States that Lapid is a “centrist” while Gantz and his National Unity Partner Gideon Sa’ar are seen as more “right of center” is strong evidence that both countries will be quite content to see Israel continue its rightward shift as long as it maintains appearances. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics