“The Prime Minister and ‘Smart Power’: The Role of the Israeli Prime Minister in the 21st Century” – that is the title of a long article published last week by MK Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid party. The piece appears in the January 2017 issue of the respected journal Strategic Assessment, put out by the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
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Not that anyone had any doubts about his intentions, but Lapid is aiming to be the next prime minister of Israel, and given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent legal and political woes, Lapid’s dream no longer seems to be entirely farfetched.
Lapid’s record so far in the security and foreign policy areas is far from impressive. His contribution as a member of the security cabinet in the previous Netanyahu government and during the most recent war in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014, when he served as finance minister, was minimal. His tenure in that post was controversial too. Lapid regularly entered into loud and fruitless confrontations with then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and the Israel Defense Forces' top brass over the size of the defense budget.
Even the effort by Yesh Atid to enforce the draft on ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, which drew relatively broad public support, was blocked by Netanyahu and never fully implemented.
In general, over the past two years, when Lapid spoke out on defense issues, he mostly made hollow declarations of his love for the IDF, accompanied by crude attacks against the left-wing anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence.
But now, Lapid’s new 20-page article, published in both Hebrew and English, reflects an attempt on his part to seriously discuss Israel’s strategic situation. A good deal of the insight he offers here may sound familiar to those who have read the book by the member of his own party, MK Ofer Shelah, “The Courage to Win: Israel Defense Policy.” Still, Lapid analyzes various components of what he calls Israel’s "integrated power" – both military and civilian – and makes it clear that, “Israel’s strength must be disproportionate to its size or to the challenges it faces, and it must be so strong that its enemies know in advance that they will lose any war against it.” The country's political and diplomatic strength must be built on international alliances and legitimacy for its actions, along with socioeconomic strength, and bolstered by ongoing technological progress, he writes.
Among the main points presented by the Yesh Atid leader are:
A strong Israel relies not only on a strong army; it depends on international backing. Netanyahu often mentioned Israel’s improved status in the international community during his round of press briefings last summer, but mostly emphasized the relations with East Asian, Eastern European and a few African nations. Lapid emphasizes the need to restore proper relations with Israel’s traditional bases of support, the United States and Western Europe. He attacks Netanyahu for the troubled relations with Washington, but it is not clear whether this claim is still relevant with the advent of the Trump administration.
As opposed to most figures on the left, Lapid positions himself in the center on various issues – this is also true in his emphasis on the need for Israel to maintain its military superiority. This includes his unqualified support for the plan to acquire sophisticated F-35 fighter planes, whose purchase has sparked a disagreement among professionals concerning their high cost, capabilities and potential technical problems. But the claims Lapid makes in favor of the necessity of maintaining military strength are more complex than the shows of power organized by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman for the benefit of the masses after the first pair of F-35s arrived in Israel.
Lapid emphasizes a different point: the need for the government to convince citizens that the enormous investments in defense are justified, while at the same time it delays dealing with burning issues affecting our daily lives, starting with smaller classes in schools and the numbers of patients hospitals can handle. The need for Israeli legitimacy is also linked, in his opinion, to the relationship the country has with America's Jewish communities. Lapid brings as an example the government’s failure to implement a compromise allowing egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, which has led to a crisis in relations with the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States, and as a result also has strained relations between Jerusalem and Washington.
He provides pragmatic criticism of the way the country’s leadership functioned during the IDF's Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014, citing the weakness of the security cabinet and Israel’s decision to go to war without defining for itself its desired outcome, the strategy behind the move or a time-linked framework for it. Lapid does not tell us, however, what he, as a member of that cabinet, proposed to do differently at the time or what influence he had on the decisions reached. On almost exactly the same issue, Lapid quotes the so-called IDF Strategy document prepared by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot in the summer of 2015, and reminds us of the serious lack of dialogue between the political leadership and the military brass when it comes to formulating Israel’s strategic goals.
Lapid casts doubt on the idea of decisive victory in warfare – one of the three pillars of the Israel security doctrine formulated by David Ben-Gurion in the 1950s, along with early-warning and deterrent capabilities – when it comes to dealing with Israel’s current enemies: Hamas and Hezbollah. Lapid says decisive victory as we once understood it is no longer valid. But at the same time, he explicitly mentions something Netanyahu refuses to acknowledge: the disappearance of the existential threat to Israel, given the collapse of the Syrian Army and the limitations imposed on the Iranian nuclear program. “Israel does not face an existential threat. Instead, there are increasing sets of threats from terrorism, the collapsed states in the region, and an escalating delegitimization campaign against Israel. National decision making has not succeeded in adapting itself to this change,” he writes.
On the other hand, in his article, Lapid is incredibly cautious about making the slightest mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He makes do with the statement: “The prime minister needs to decide whether his goal is to achieve an agreement with our neighbors based on the principle of two states, or to work toward perpetuating the existing situation with the Palestinians.” But what does he really think about this issue? He could say the time has passed for such an agreement; alternatively, he could express his support for it. But Lapid just ignores the question here and does not even give a hint of what he really believes.
Lapid has written a serious document which raises questions as to how to reconcile this scholarly work with his activities in the political and media realms over the past few years. What stands out most is the way he has tried to ingratiate himself with the broader public and strived for a countless number of "likes" after making superficial and sentimental declarations in favor of the nation, the military and its soldiers.
Was this just a political tactic whose goal was to achieve power? It will only be tested if it turns out his efforts bear fruit and he wins the next election.