Charting Path to Prime Minister’s Office, Lapid Seeks to Restore the Foreign Ministry’s Status

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Lapid in Knesset, earlier this month.
Lapid in Knesset, earlier this month.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN / Reuters
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

If he is judged solely by his maiden addresses as Israel’s new foreign minister, Yair Lapid will be using his time in office mainly to do repair work: restoring relations with the U.S. Democratic Party (“they’re angry”), ending the neglect of the Diaspora Jewish community (“they’re family”), strengthening ties with Jordan’s King Abdullah (“a strategic partner”) and shoring up the Palestinian Authority (even though “no permanent settlement is expected”).

“Over the last few years, Israel has disgracefully neglected its foreign service and the international arena,” Lapid told the Foreign Ministry staff early this week, “and then it suddenly wakes up one morning and is surprised that there’s been considerable erosion in its international standing.”

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For years, Lapid has aspired to the role of foreign minister. Since he was elected to the Knesset in 2013, he has dedicated time to diplomatic affairs. But in the end, this dream has become just a waystation: In another two years, if the coalition holds together, Lapid will exit the Foreign Ministry and cross the street to the Prime Minister’s Office. Lapid has already designated his successor at the ministry: Gideon Sa’ar, who is now justice minister, will fill his shoes in August 2023 until the next election.

Lapid’s term as foreign minister is important to him just as it is to the ministry. It will enable him to establish his public image as an experienced diplomat and help him build popular support before he assumes the role of prime minister. “Even if the government collapses before the rotation, the next two years are critical for Lapid. His term as foreign minister is aimed at positioning himself as the next prime minister, even if he needs to go into elections again to get there,” said one source who is close to him.

From Lapid’s viewpoint, the job is the achievement of a long-held goal. “My appointment as foreign minister is not the random outcome from the musical chairs involved in forming a coalition. I planned for it. I wanted it. I did everything possible to get here,” he told ministry staffers this week.

In his position as alternate prime minister, Lapid will try to restore the ministry to its historic status as influential and relevant. In coalition negotiations, he promised to increase spending on its operations significantly. His work program is exacting and already complete. One of his first acts as minister was to retain the veteran ministry official, Alon Ushpiz, as its director general.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid with outgoing minister Gabi Ashkenazi, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Monday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In the ministry’s ceremonial hall last week sat the outgoing foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi. Ashkenazi is credited with having led a quiet revolution in recent months that brought some color back to the cheeks to Israeli diplomats. The Foreign Ministry had suffered years of disdain from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s and sharp budget cuts while being sidelined from key diplomatic decisions. Ashkenazi, however, was able to win the ministry extra budget funds, introduced new procedures and ensured that appointments in the embassies and at home were professional, not political.

He didn’t give a lot of interviews to the media or take credit for the measures, but he won praise from his subordinates. “Ashkenazi isn’t an easy person, but he shook up the ministry, introduced new work methods and eventually brought it back to the place it needs to be,” said one senior ministry official recently

Lapid expressed appreciation for Ashkenazi’s efforts, but didn’t spare him criticism. “Gabi did the best he could to improve the situation, and the best that Ashkenazi can do is quite a lot, but he did it inside the wrong government without any backing,” Lapid said at the transition ceremony.

In the past, Lapid has linked preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons with the need to advance Israel’s dialogue with the Palestinian Authority. “I believe that a breakthrough in the Iran issue hinges on the Palestinian issue,” he said at a conference of the Mitvim Institute two years ago. “We must work to advance a diplomatic solution with the Palestinians, but only as part of a regional discussion. Without progress with the Palestinians, can we win the support of the Saudi street, the U.S. Congress, the Jews of the United States and European Union or raise money from the Gulf states?” he asked, and answered: “Netanyahu says yes. I tell you, no.”

Now, it is reasonable to assume that Lapid will dedicate great effort to the American arena. As opposed to the “ultra right-wing” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who arouses suspicion in the Biden administration, Lapid is seen as a pragmatic, moderate figure with whom it is possible to work.

This week, he made it clear that he intends on strengthening ties with the Democratic Party. Most likely he was influenced on the matter by Mark Mellman, a pollster and strategic adviser who is very close to Lapid, and who is responsible to a great extent for Yesh Atid’s achievements in the last election campaign. Mellman serves today as the president of the American organization Democratic Majority for Israel. Given the very close relationship between the two, it was not surprising to hear Lapid’s call this week to strengthen ties with the Democrats, on Sunday calling Israel’s treatment of the Democratic Party “disgraceful and dangerous.”

“I warned about it more than once, but the outgoing government made a bad, hasty and dangerous bet to focus only on the Republicans, and to abandon Israel’s bipartisan standing,” he said. “The Republicans are important to us, but not just them. We find ourselves facing a Democratic White House, Democratic Senate and Democratic House of Representatives. These Democrats are angry and we need to change the way we work with them.”

During Operation Guardian of the Walls in the Gaza Strip, the criticism of Israel within the Democratic Party grew, also on the part of senators considered to be sworn friends of Israel. An Israeli official recently told Haaretz that the criticism from the Democratic benches may have been loud, but its influence on the administration is much less than it seems. “It is a loud minority that does not hold real power. But the mainstream totally understands us,” said the official.

Biden represents the older generation in the Democratic Party, which is sticking to its traditional pro-Israel positions, but Israeli officials fear the influence of the criticism on lower-ranking decision makers in the administration.

Lapid called this week to deepen the ties with American Jewry, too. He spoke as the comments of Netanyahu’s former ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, echoed in the background: that Israel should focus its outreach on the evangelical Christian community instead of the American Jewish community. Dermer said evangelicals, who are outspoken admirers of Israel, represent 25 percent of Americans, compared to the Jews, who are less than 2 percent, and a great proportion of the latter lack any connection to Israel or Judaism.

Lapid’s approach is of course different. “The fact that we are supported by evangelical and other groups in the United States is important and gladdening, but the Jews of the world are more than allies, they are family,” Lapid said at the event. “World Jewry, from all denominations of Judaism – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox – are our family. And family is always the most important connection, and we need to cultivate it more than anything.”

Either way, his immediate task will be to “free up the bottleneck” and appoint new ambassadors, consuls and other staffers whose advancement became stuck because of the endless disagreements under the Netanyahu-Gantz government. “The process of drying out the Israeli foreign service will not continue,” Lapid promised at the event, and he was rewarded with spirited applause.

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