Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid said Sunday that Israel must accept the Arab peace initiative as a basis for negotiations with the Palestinians and moderate Arab states.
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In an address at Bar-Ilan University, Lapid accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of damaging Israel's ties with the United States and advancing a policy of paralysis that puts Israel at a disadvantage in the international arena.
"Israel's master strategy needs to be moving toward a regional arrangement that will enable a full normalization of relations with the Arab states and the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel," Lapid said.
"Convening a regional conference as the opening shot for a comprehensive regional arrangement is the most effective tactical and political tool for getting this process going. The framework of the discussions at this conference must be the Saudi-Arab initiative of 2002."
Lapid noted that the Arab initiative focuses not just on an arrangement with the Palestinians but also on the normalization of ties – both political and economic – with the Arab world as a whole.
"Even if we don't agree with every word in the Saudi initiative – and there are problematic clauses that I would not be able to accept – this is an important initiative that can serve as an appropriate framework for negotiations," Lapid said.
"Israel should not have left it without response for 13 years. The lack of response causes the world to think we're looking not really for a solution, but rather for excuses not to reach an arrangement."
According to Lapid, despite Israel's resistance to certain clauses in the Arab peace initiative, "the Saudis should be praised for their comprehensive and serious work and their willingness to take a political chance and adopt a positive stance out of a desire to reach an end to this conflict."
He added that certain clauses and paragraphs would have to be changed during negotiations, but that "the initiative is the correct framework for holding talks."
Lapid also stressed that under the Arab initiative, both sides agree in advance that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "separation that will lead to the convergence of Israel into the major settlements, setting security arrangements and establishing a demilitarized Palestinian state."
Lapid, a former finance minister under Netanyahu, also outlined his ideas for a regional peace conference. One channel would be direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the other Israeli talks with the wider Arab world.
“Both channels would handle central issues on the table: the question of borders, the rebuilding of Gaza in return for Hamas’ disarmament, the economy, and mainly security arrangements,” he said.
Implementation and the withdrawal of Israeli forces would be gradual — both in terms of the timetable and tests of implementation.
“If the Palestinians don’t comply, the entire process will be halted immediately,” he said, adding that even with an agreement, Israel would retain freedom of action in the West Bank to prevent attacks.
Lapid also harshly criticized Netanyahu’s diplomatic efforts since returning as prime minister in 2009.
“For seven years he has been telling us that now is not the time to take action. Once it’s the Iranian nuclear program, once it’s the Arab Spring, again the Iranian nuclear program, and then there’s a round of fighting in Gaza and an election. There’s always something,” Lapid said.
“There’s always a reason not to do anything ... to flee the need to make decisions. And he does all this while selling to the Israeli public that he’s the only Israeli politician with enough experience to be prime minister. Seven years of deterioration on the security and diplomatic fronts isn’t experience, it’s failure.”
Lapid said that under Netanyahu, Israel “has shown a worrisome tendency to isolate itself, not to initiate, to wait without knowing what it’s waiting for.” Amid the political disintegration of the Middle East, Israel has to exploit opportunities.
“In the Arab world, and among the Palestinians too, there are groups that want to cooperate with us. “If we don’t do something, we’re inviting attacks against us,” Lapid said.
“We mustn’t limit our policy to the bad options. When someone doesn’t react to changes, the changes turn against him. We can’t suffice with isolation ... because that’s what increases the attacks against us.”
Meanwhile, the continuation of current relations with the Palestinians threatened Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. “Israel can’t let itself try to swallow up 3.5 million Palestinians — in Gaza and in Judea and Samaria,” Lapid said, referring to the West Bank.
“My father didn’t come here from the ghetto to live in a binational state. He came here to live in the land of the Jews. And if we don’t separate from the Palestinians, the Jewishness of the Land of Israel is in danger.”
Lapid also described a scenario in which the Palestinians dropped their demand for an independent state and asked for full citizenship rights, including the right to vote in Knesset elections.
“They know that if we say no, we’ll stop being a democracy and be removed from the family of nations,” he said. “If we tell them yes they’ll go to the polls and the Joint Arab List won’t be 13 seats, it will be 50 seats, and Israel will cease to be a Jewish state.”
Lapid noted what he called a great lack of trust between the sides. After the Gaza pullout a decade ago, the Israelis feel there is no partner on the Palestinian side, and the Palestinians see “the settlements that surround their cities” as proof that Israel never intended to give them a state, he said.
“The Israelis and the Palestinians are being led by people for whom preserving the current situation is their life’s work. Netanyahu told us that the proposed solution is bad but didn’t do what his job requires and propose another solution,” Lapid said.
“I don’t reject caution, but you also have to be careful about caution, because there’s a stage when it turns into paralysis. After years and years of being aware that there’s no chance and that nothing will change, I’m suggesting another approach to you that would lead us to different places.”
Much of Lapid’s attack against Netanyahu touched on the prime minister’s battle against the Iranian nuclear agreement in the U.S. Congress. “Netanyahu failed dismally in conducting this battle. He arrogantly and crudely intervened in American politics and harmed Israeli interests,” Lapid said.
“He misread the map of the new America, which has changed greatly in the past decade, turned the U.S. administration into an enemy, turned the Democratic Party into an enemy, and turned the Israeli government into a satellite of the Republican Party. He launched a frontal clash with the administration at the very moment we needed it most.”
Lapid rejected Netanyahu’s claims that he knew he wouldn’t win the battle in Congress.
“For months he and his people told anyone who was willing to listen that he knew how to beat the president in Congress, then he suffered a resounding defeat. That wasn’t a defeat in points, it was a knockout. To intervene in the U.S. election, to slander the president and the secretary of state with anonymous and not-so-anonymous leaks — these are actions that damage Israel,” Lapid said.
“To speak in Congress behind the president’s back under the sponsorship of the rival party only because you have an election in Israel, that’s already an act of national irresponsibility. Then we’re surprised that the president and secretary of state signed the agreement without hearing Netanyahu’s reservations? Why should they listen to him when he engages in subversion in their own home?”
Lapid added that Israelis still don’t realize the scope of damage to Israel from Netanyahu’s battle against the Iranian nuclear agreement. “This crisis isn’t temporary. It won’t end the day President Obama leaves the White House,” he said.
“This is a conflict that has implications for the entire administration, including the U.S. defense establishment. It tears apart and splits American Jewry, significantly weakens AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, and worst of all, the Arab world is well aware of it. The Arabs see it. The conflict with the Americans has affected and is affecting our deterrence.”