Analysis |

Lapid Makes Clear to Ukraine That Israel Isn't Putin's Errand Boy

Another question hovering over Lapid's European tour, Bennett's Ukraine-Russia mediation and Lieberman's battle with the farm lobby is whether Ayelet Shaked will stick around to see Lapid become prime minister

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration.
Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Earlier this week, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid boarded a plane (not the infamous Israeli version of Air Force One) for a 36-hour visit to Romania and Slovakia, two countries that have long borders with Ukraine over which refugees are pouring. On his way to a border crossing in the town of Siret, he met with Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca, a tall, impressive man who served in the past as both chief of staff of the Romanian army and defense minister.

Over the last few years, Lapid has spent many hours, not all of them pleasant, with tall former chiefs of staff who became politicians and defense ministers in Israel. This week’s meeting undoubtedly gave him greater satisfaction than the mud-wrestling of his joint election campaigns with those men.

In keeping with tradition, his conversation with the Romanian leader lasted much longer than the time allotted on the schedule. The Israeli foreign minister heard from Ciuca what he also heard from other senior officials in the region: They are afraid.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on the Romanian-Ukrainian border this week.Credit: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

None of them think Russian President Vladimir Putin is insane or suffering from dementia. They all grew up in the dark shadow of the Iron Curtain, the era Putin misses and seeks to recreate in a kind of violent, warped historical correction, and they’re convinced that this is a coherent doctrine. He is implementing what he planned, and what he dreamed about for years: restoring the Soviet empire to greatness. Recreating the country that disappeared.

The scenario that keeps every Eastern European leader and general awake at night is an errant missile. The NATO alliance will be tested, Lapid was told by the senior officials he met with, when a missile or shell accidently strays over the border and lands in the territory of a NATO member.

The Americans have announced that if this happens, they will respond as if the United States had been attacked. But if they blink for even a second, if they say, “You don’t start a world war over a single missile,” then NATO can close its doors and be consigned to a Wikipedia entry gathering virtual dust.

When he returned to Israel on Tuesday, Lapid had a long phone call with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. One day earlier, it had been reported that Kuleba had refused to accept phone calls from his Israeli counterpart for days to protest Israel’s stance on the war. But Lapid’s unequivocal statements in Eastern Europe – the most pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian made to date by any Israeli minister – evidently pacified him.

Kuleba thanked Lapid for his promise that Israel wouldn’t become a channel for Russia to bypass sanctions – a statement that was made in English alongside the Slovakian foreign minister. Lapid also said an interministerial committee would be set up to ensure that this worthy pledge doesn’t remain on paper only.

The Ukrainian minister presumably didn’t miss the timing of Lapid’s statement – immediately after Russian-Israeli oligarch Roman Abramovich curtailed his stay in Israel to one day due to the government’s restrictions on how long oligarchs’ jets can park at Ben-Gurion Airport.

Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich at Ben-Gurion International Airport this week.Credit: Stringer/Reuters

Contrary to the widespread rumors in Israel (some of which stem from what Israeli ministers politely term the “colorful character” of Ukrainian Ambassador Yevgen Korniychuk), the Ukrainians have more than once expressed their appreciation for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s mediation efforts. In their view, anyone who is capable of talking with both sides should do so. “Doing nothing isn’t an option,” Lapid told Kuleba.

And while we’re on the subject of the Ukrainian ambassador, he called Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked on Tuesday to request an “urgent meeting.” Shaked agreed to meet with him at a café near her home in north Tel Aviv. When she arrived, the ambassador was waiting for her at the entrance with a large bouquet of flowers.

Shaked’s office declined to speculate on the meaning of the gesture. Did he seek to thank her for easing her restrictions on accepting Ukrainian refugees, a change announced two days earlier? Or was it an attempt to appease her anger over reports that the Ukrainian Embassy had petitioned the High Court of Justice over the original plan (though it didn’t actually submit the petition; it merely supported it?)

Since then, the issue has been resolved, at least for the next two weeks – after which, according to Shaked, the government will review its policy. Meanwhile, the format of the speech Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will give to Knesset members at 6 P.M. Sunday has also been settled to the embassy’s satisfaction. It will be on Zoom, with introductory remarks by Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy.

On Wednesday, Bennett and Lapid met at the prime minister’s adjunct office in Tel Aviv and decided that both of them would attend Zelenskyy’s Zoom speech. They expect all cabinet members and all Knesset members from the governing coalition to do the same, so as not to provoke “contempt and wrath,” to borrow from the Book of Esther.

One heavy stone has been lifted from their hearts – Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov, who met with the Knesset speaker that same morning, didn’t demand that the dictator, war criminal and mass murderer sitting in the Kremlin be given the right to respond in a similar speech. Levy had prepared a wealth of evasive excuses for this dire scenario. But fortunately, he didn’t have to demonstrate his diplomatic skills.

The silly season

Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Like every other senior member of the governing coalition, sees himself as more experienced and more worthy of the prime minister’s job than Bennett. So he wants to at least make his mark in his own area of responsibility, as the treasury czar.

A battle against the farmers’ interests and in favor of his very necessary reform of fruit and vegetable imports has been on the back burner from the day the Bennett-Lapid government was formed. But in a brutal move, he has now unilaterally signed an order lowering customs duties (together with his party colleague, Agriculture Minister Oded Forer). And he did it just the way he likes to – in a manner that provoked his coalition partners and drove them crazy.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announcing the lowering of custom duties on fruits this week.

It’s no accident that the axe fell on customs duties the moment the Knesset recessed. The goal was to prevent any annoying noise from the house or unnecessary rebellions on votes. Lieberman did it gleefully and couldn’t care less about the complaints from the Kahol Lavan, Labor and Meretz parties.

His glee was evident in his hilarity at meetings. We’d already heard about the misogynist joke regarding Ukrainian women that he told in the cabinet, and he has apologized. But his outburst of humor didn’t end there.

Intelligence Affairs Minister Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid) said, “This is an emergency; therefore we need emergency conversions.” Lieberman responded, “We can do a mass conversion, like in Babylonia.” And Housing Minister Zeev Elkin (New Hope) supplied the punchline. “It will only work if Mansour heads the conversion system,” he said, referring to United Arab List chairman Mansour Abbas.

What’s truly interesting is the silence on the agricultural reform emanating from Yesh Atid. As part of Lapid’s strategy of breaking left, the Yesh Atid leader held well-publicized events with the Kibbutz Movement during the last election campaign.

For Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz, a moshavnik from birth, this is a matter of blood. Like many members of Israel’s early governments, he considers home-grown agriculture to be important. Moreover, he views the moshav movement – a significant portion of which voted for Likud – as containing a significant reservoir of centrist and soft-right voters that’s worth working for.

For Meretz and Labor, of course, this is a matter of ideology. But it’s also nostalgia for the shrinking pool of voters who once appalled former Likud leader Menachem Begin by the size of their swimming pools.

Benjamin Netanyahu. The opposition leader recovered from the coronavirus and emerged from isolation to the news (reported by Michael Shemesh of the Kan television station) that his veteran chief of staff, Asher Hayon, has decided to quit. The little that remains of his former bureau is disintegrating as his political future becomes gloomier and gloomier.

The Bennett-Lapid government was formed nine months ago. In June, it will complete its first year. It will be almost impossible to topple it before March 31, 2023, the last possible date for approving the 2022 budget.

As the months pass, the possibility of Netanyahu returning to the Prime Minister’s Office has come to look terribly unlikely. It’s more likely that the Knesset’s summer session will see him renewing negotiations over a plea bargain.

He is hoping to get at least some cold comfort from his crony and admirer, former Communications Ministry director general Shlomo Filber, who has been under enormous pressure from his own milieu ever since he turned state’s evidence against Netanyahu. Filber is likely to be called to the witness stand this coming Wednesday, and if not, then the following week.

In recent days, he has constantly tweeted things that sound good to the bloc he ostensibly “betrayed” and marked himself as a potential hostile witness. But he ought to know that it will be hard for him to stop the train hurtling toward conviction without getting himself in trouble with the prosecution, and risking the cancelation of the state’s evidence agreement that saved him from standing trial.

Ayelet Shaked. The episode of the Ukrainian refugees has once again produced the obvious political conclusion that the interior minister and No. 2 in Bennett’s Yamina party will try to torpedo the rotation of the prime minister’s job to Lapid. An abyss yawns between them on almost every issue.

Every day in this government makes her suffer. Her body is between Meretz’s Tamar Zandberg and Labor’s Merav Michaeli, but her heart is somewhere on the far right, even the diehard pro-Netanyahu right. Many people who have spoken with her have the impression that for her, it’s still 2017 and she’s stilll deep in Yamina’s more hardline predecessor, Habayit Hayehudi.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Sunday.

In countless conversations, Shaked has defended forming this government while at the same time speaking openly about her troubled conscience and her aching belly. But ever since the governing coalition was formed, she has been moving toward that belly – all, of course, in carefully calculated steps.

She wants to rebuild her base, keep the door to Likud open (her appointment book contains many meetings with Likud mayors who have boatloads of voters behind them, and not by chance) and become the government’s lone rightist – in her view – and thereby minimize the “damage” this coalition is doing to her image, as a step toward reinventing herself. She believes that preventing the rotation, or at least attempting to do so, which will involve disengaging from Bennett and fellow a Yamina chieftan, Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana, will nullify the deep right’s hatred for her. And then, something new will begin.

The women’s section

Sometimes the change (in our “government of change”) happens far from the spotlight and the headlines. Kahana is someone who came to change things.

This week he was photographed in the company of 16 women. Six of them were appointed by him to run religious councils, the rest will serve as deputy heads. Never before has a woman been appointed to head one of Israel’s 129 religious councils – or even as the deputy. This is more than a change, it’s a historic revolution.

This never happened even when the ministry was run by ministers outside the ultra-Orthodox parties. Dozens of religious council heads have now been replaced. Democratizing these bodies and affirmative action for women are the apples of the new minister’s eye.

“I come from the air force,” Kahana told me this week. “There are female pilots, navigators and squadron commanders there. Why can’t a woman run a religious council? This is a managerial job; she isn’t making halakhic decisions.”

When Kahana took office in June, he discovered not only that women were completely taboo but that around 90 percent of religious council members were appointed by the minister rather than in a democratic election. The councils had become a jobs factory – especially for Shas, a benighted party that prefers its women in the kitchen and its men, those famous fighters for the downtrodden, in government jobs and Prada suits.

In recent months, Kahana has ousted hundreds of associates of Shas chief Arye Dery from these councils and launched democratic elections. Thirty councils have been elected this way, and 30 others are in the pipeline. More will follow.

For Dery, this is nothing less than apocalypse now. It’s not that Kahana is taking away his cheese, he’s closing the whole delicatessen.

This week the Shas chairman called an emergency meeting of his party’s representatives in local governments. “God have mercy,” he lamented. “A religious council isn’t an appointment to provide an income for someone. A religious council head is responsible for mikvehs, kashrut, events – everything connected to human life.

“We see who he’s appointing there. In Beit Shemesh he sent some woman. He doesn’t understand, he doesn’t know.”

The women Kahana appointed are all, of course, religious Jews to one degree or another.

“You’ll see,” the robbed Cossack warned the people at the meeting, his voice breaking. “Soon they’ll change everything. The laws of nature. Why do you need a mikveh attendant, why do you need mikvehs? If we had dared to do 10 percent of what they’re doing, by 5 in the morning they’d already have appointed a special investigative committee. Everything is allowed.”

Well, with special investigative committees, nobody knows better than someone with experience.

But Dery isn’t just weeping and wailing. “He’s running around to mayors and threatening that if they don’t fight me, he’ll make trouble for them when he returns to the job,” Kahana said.

And here and there, Kahana is succeeding. Mayors have filed 12 petitions to the courts against the minister. One, by the upscale town of Savyon east of Tel Aviv, was rejected by the Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday.

And that’s no surprise. Kahana got a green light from the Justice Ministry, and every step he takes is coordinated with his ministry’s legal adviser.

So all these petitions are destined to be rejected. They were apparently submitted so the mayors could tell Dery, “Sorry, we tried, but it didn’t work.”

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