Renewing Palestinian Ties, Cozying Up to Biden, and Iran: The New Foreign Minister's To-do List

After Netanyahu has worked to diminish the influence of the foreign ministry, Israel's incoming Foreign Minister Yair Lapid will face several new challenges in the region, as well as further afield

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
Yair Lapid, Foreign Minister-designate, is seen at the Knesset in Jerusalem today.
Yair Lapid, Foreign Minister-designate, is seen at the Knesset in Jerusalem today.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

In recent years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made the Foreign Ministry irrelevant. He slashed its budget and ostracized it from the centers of decision-making. In its place, the prime minister’s office opened an independent diplomatic branch through which Netanyahu advanced a series of Israel’s foreign policy achievements.

Out of the sight of the foreign minister and his aides, Netanyahu facilitated the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and the Gulf states and Morocco. By leveraging his personal ties with former U.S. President Donald Trump, Netanyahu prompted the U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights as a part of Israel, and the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

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Foreign Minister-designate Yair Lapid will now have to follow in the path of his predecessor Gabi Ashkenazi, who began efforts to restore the ministry’s status after his appointment in 2020. Lapid will have to propel the Foreign Ministry’s senior officials into the heart of public action and mobilize significant funding to upgrade its activities.

In 2019, Lapid criticized Netanyahu’s foreign policies: “Crushing the Foreign Ministry is giving up on our story, crushing our public relations. We’re not talking to the European Union, to the Democratic Party, to international institutions. We’re only talking with people who think like them, or who don’t care.”

There are serious issues on the agenda: In the upcoming week, world superpowers are set to reach a decision on the Iranian nuclear program after talks in Vienna. Lapid and Bennett will have to shape Israel’s ties with the new Biden administration, which is reluctant to forward the diplomatic process in the region at the moment.

At the same time, Lapid and the Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Frej might try to renew ties with the Palestinian Authority, which Israel has neglected in recent years, and advance ties with additional Arab countries that want to sign normalization agreements with Israel.

Evidence of Lapid’s expected policy can be found in remarks he made at a conference at Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies: “I believe that a breakthrough on the Iranian issue depends on the Palestinian issue. We need to work to advance a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians, only as part of a regional discussion,” he said.

“Can we separate the Iranian problem from the Palestinian problem? Without progress vis a vis the Palestinians, can we enlist the [support of] the Saudi public, the U.S. Congress, American Jewry, the European Union and the money from the Gulf states? Netanyahu says we can. I tell you we can’t. Most security officials say we can’t,” Lapid said at the conference.

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