WASHINGTON – Opposition leader Yair Lapid on Monday accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of turning Israel into a partisan issue in American politics, highlighting Netanyahu's extension of condolences to Rush Limbaugh's family on Twitter last week.
"We need to go back to making Israel acceptable for both sides of the aisle, for Democrats and Republicans," Lapid told the Brookings Institution's international conference on the Middle East and the new U.S. administration, adding "I'm going to do much better work in making sure Israel goes back to being a bipartisan issue in the United States."
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Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party and hopes to replace Netanyahu in Israel's March 23 election, noted that Netanyahu "has made the mistake of affiliating himself way too much with the Republican Party, starting with his conflict with President Obama and his administration in 2015, which escalated to his speech in Congress."
He clarified that Netanyahu's mistake was aligning with a "certain branch" of the Republican Party, saying that "I don't think it's the place of an Israeli prime minister, for example, to sing the obituary of Rush Limbaugh. This is not the kind of politics we should have."
On Thursday, following the controversial right-wing talk shot host's death last week, Netanyahu had tweeted: "I send my heartfelt condolences to the family of Rush Limbaugh. He was a great friend of Israel and he stood by us through thick and thin, always firm, never wavering. We shall miss him dearly."
Referring to the Iran nuclear issue, Lapid noted that while he has the same general approach to the Iran nuclear issue as Netanyahu, he has high expectations for the Biden administration. He also specifically praised Secretary of State Antony Blinken and special Iran envoy Rob Malley, who was targeted by right-wing critics for holding an anti-Israel bias prior to his appointment.
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Also speaking at the conference, New Hope chairman Gideon Sa'ar noted that he remains committed to annexation, praised the Trump-era Abraham Accords, questioned the Biden administration's ultimate goal with respect to Iran, and said that Israel will do whatever it deems necessary against Iran even if it reaches a deal on the matter with the United States.
Although Sa'ar said that he thinks the U.S. and Israel can reach an agreement on Iran, he stressed that Israel reserves the right to take any action it deems it fit. "Israel is a sovereign country, and Israel should act according to its national security concerns, and we have here an issue of threats. We cannot under any circumstances compromise our security," Sa'ar said.
When asked whether this includes covert or military action despite U.S. positions, Sa'ar cited Israel's attacks on Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981 despite U.S. opposition to such a move at the time and noted that the U.S. eventually recognized that Israel made the right decision.
"We should talk with the American administration with a good will to find a common ground. But ultimately, we are committed to the security of our country and our citizens," Sa'ar said, adding that he will make an effort to have "very sincere, direct and effective talks with the new administration. We have the same objective and mindset; we can share thoughts on how we can reach this objective together."
Sa'ar said the Trump administration left the Biden administration an asset with the hard sanctions placed on Iran. "These hard sanctions are the best leverage the current U.S. administration has toward Iran," Sa'ar said, adding that he is unclear on what exactly the Biden administration's ultimate goal is with respect to the 2015 nuclear deal, noting that Iran is currently placing preconditions on the United States.
Sa'ar added that the spate of normalization pacts Israel signed with Arab states during the Trump administration means that the Middle East is more united now than it was in the past against dangers presented by Iran's nuclear program.
Sa'ar noted that he remains committed to the goal of annexation, but said that he will honor Netanyahu's commitment to Trump to hold back on the matter in light of the Abraham Accords. He added that he believes the Biden administration is realistic about what can be achieved through negotiations with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future, saying that he believes pragmatic steps can be taken to improve the lives of Palestinians.