Yair Lapid displayed the kind of political courage on Tuesday evening that has thus far been missing from the current Israeli election campaign.
He went to Ariel to call for a renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians, and to position himself as Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert did before him: as a political moderate, but one with an aggressive stance on defense. This strategy enabled all three of them to defeat the right at the ballot box. Now Lapid aims to fill the void left by the collapse of Kadima and the political decline of Ehud Barak.
Lapid's current election rivals, and his potential partners in the next governing coalition – Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman and Shelly Yacimovich – have attempted to make the public forget about the existence of the Palestinians, tossing the "diplomatic issue" into the trash.
Until now, Lapid has also focused on problems in education and the need to change the system of government in Israel. Starting now he also has a political program, which, following in the tradition of his predecessors, is meant to annoy the left ("Jerusalem won't be divided") and the right (by calling for leaving some of the settlements), and thus to present Lapid as the real voice of Israel's political center.
But this is only how things appear on the surface. In the historical argument between the right and left over what is more important to Israel – control over the territories or international support – Lapid clearly leans toward the left. In his eyes, Israel must aim for an agreement with the Palestinians, including withdrawal from part of the West Bank, in order to preserve a Jewish majority in its territory and guarantee the support of the West.
This was also the approach espoused by Rabin, Barak and Olmert, which appealed to Israelis who see an Israeli-Palestinian agreement as a necessary price to pay for acceptance by the West, and not as a bridge to integration into the "New Middle East."
The importance that Lapid ascribes to international support dictates his stance on the confrontation with Iran as well. He opposes an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities (calling it an "option of last resort") and believes that Israel must exhaust its diplomatic options in order to bring about an international coalition led by the U.S. "to choke Iran," and to make clear to the country's leaders that the survival of the regime depends on giving up its nuclear ambitions.
Israel's primary tool for recruiting the support of "the world," according to Lapid, is political flexibility vis a vis the Palestinians.
Here, Lapid clashes with Netanyahu, who does not believe in the world's support, would prefer that Israel act on its own and is not prepared to pay the price of evacuating settlements for American firmness against Iran. There is finally some argument over something important in the campaign, as Lapid recruits to his side the "professional echelons" who oppose Israeli action on Iran, likely in a way to compensate for his inferiority against the prime minister as a strategic expert.
The kicker in Lapid's speech was his announcement that his condition for joining the next government would be that it carry on serious negotiations with the Palestinians.
He undoubtedly knows how hard it will be to stand by this commitment in practice: The prime minister could enter negotiations, and then let them sink into endless foot-dragging, then blame the Palestinians for it, saying "there's no partner." Lapid and his cohorts will, by that point, already be sitting on their chairs, and will find it hard to quit the coalition.
But that moment is still far away. For now, Lapid must only show that he has something to say about war and peace. On Tuesday, he passed this test with honors.