September 26, 2017

Fresh Israeli Face Plays Down Political Decline

Mr. Lapid, a popular television host with no political experience, stunned Israel in January by galvanizing the secular middle class around kitchen-table concerns to make his new Yesh Atid Party the second largest in Parliament. He was immediately crowned a kingmaker, and talked openly about quickly replacing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But he ended up with the fraught job of finance minister, and facing a huge deficit. As he presented an austerity budget this month with tax increases and subsidy cuts that hit hard the people he claimed to represent, polls showed his approval rating plummeting to 21 percent; fewer than half of those who voted Yesh Atid (There is a Future), said they would pick the party again. The protesters who had helped propel his political rise began showing up outside his home on a cul-de-sac here.

So after months of communicating with the public only on Facebook, Mr. Lapid has embarked on a media blitz, deploying his telegenic good looks and sound-bite savvy. He summoned a series of journalists to an outdoor cafe here on Thursday, wearing jeans and his trademark black T-shirt, and tried to take the long view.

“I’m going to be bashed now, and be the beneficiary of this within, I don’t know, a year or a year and a half,” Mr. Lapid, 49, said in his first interview with an international news organization since his unexpected vault into global headlines. He still hopes to succeed Mr. Netanyahu, but said, “I’m in no hurry.”

Asked about the transition to politics, he called it “painful,” joking, “I used to have so many opinions before I learned the facts.”

In an hourlong conversation, Mr. Lapid offered no criticism of Mr. Netanyahu. He said he talks or exchanges text messages almost daily with Naftali Bennett, the leader of the nationalist Jewish Home Party, with whom he formed an alliance to block the ultra-Orthodox from joining Israel’s governing coalition. He declined to discuss security issues like Iran.

An avowed centrist, Mr. Lapid nevertheless took a hard line on policy toward the Palestinians, the issue that has defined Israeli politics for decades but that was overshadowed by domestic concerns in the recent campaign. He said that Israel should not change its policy on Israeli settlements in the West Bank in order to revive the stalemated peace process, and that Jerusalem should not serve as the capital of a future Palestinian state — an essential part of Palestinian plans.

Mr. Lapid acknowledged that tens of thousands of Jews would someday be uprooted from what he described as “remote settlements” in the West Bank, something he called “heartbreaking.” But he said that problem should be set aside for now, advocating the immediate creation of an interim Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank where no Jews live, with final borders drawn in perhaps three, four or five years. Palestinian leaders have roundly rejected temporary borders.

While he described the two-state solution as “crucial” to preserving Israel as a Jewish nation, he offered no hints of Israeli concessions that could break the stalemate in the peace process. Instead, he repeatedly said he hoped that Secretary of State John Kerry, who is scheduled to arrive here this week for his fourth visit in two months, would “jump-start” it.

And he expressed extreme skepticism about the likelihood of reaching a deal with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, saying, “He’s one of the founding fathers of the victimizing concept of the Palestinians.”

He also questioned whether Palestinians truly wanted a state.

“Israelis want peace and security and Palestinians want peace and justice — these are two very different things, and this is the real gap we have to close,” he said. “More and more people are saying to themselves and to others, this is not going to happen, all we have to do is some maintenance and we’ll see. Some people think ‘we’ll see’ is ‘God will help us,’ which is not a very tangible idea to me. Others say, ‘Some problems are not to be solved,’ which is a very sad idea.

“I am saying what we need to do is something.”

Yet while Mr. Lapid vowed “to be proactive about this and do everything in my power to contribute to the discourse,” he said he has not spoken with Mr. Kerry since sitting with him at a state dinner during President Obama’s visit to Jerusalem in March. Nor has he met with any Palestinians since taking office.

He said he had found Mr. Netanyahu “more willing” and “more prepared than people tend to think” to make peace with the Palestinians. Indeed, there was little daylight between the two men’s positions. Mr. Lapid said he would not stop the so-called “natural expansion” of settlements in the West Bank, nor curtail the financial incentives offered Israelis to move there. He said the large swaths of land known as East Jerusalem that Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war and later annexed must stay Israeli because “we didn’t come here for nothing.”

“Jerusalem is not a place, Jerusalem is an idea,” he said. “Jerusalem is the capital of the Israeli state.”

Little known outside Israel a few months ago, Mr. Lapid in April ousted Mr. Netanyahu from Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people, and last week topped the Jerusalem Post’s ranking of influential Jews. (Mr. Netanyahu landed at No. 3.) But he has become the target of angry Facebook campaigns and editorial cartoons, and is battered daily by columnists across the spectrum.

“In no time at all, he has lost his major assets: the credibility and trust of the Israeli voter,” Yossi Verter, the political writer for the left-leaning daily Haaretz, wrote Friday. In Yediot Aharonot, Nahum Barnea said, “The truth is that Lapid has taken too much upon himself.” And in the right-leaning Jerusalem Post, Gil Hoffman observed, “The boxer who idolizes Muhammad Ali has now become a political punching bag.”

One of the things that led some to turn on Mr. Lapid was the revelation that he met in April with Sheldon Adelson, the ultraconservative financier who backs Mr. Netanyahu and owns the Israel Hayom newspaper that loyally supports him. Mr. Lapid said Thursday that Mr. Adelson requested the meeting to ensure that the government would continue its matching grant of about $40 million to Birthright, a program that brings young Jews to Israel, and that “there was nothing political about it.”

Throughout the interview, Mr. Lapid was charming, confident — and controlling. Pressed on a certain point, he warned, “I’m so good at not answering questions I don’t want to answer that we could go all night.” And he refused to be photographed for this article at the cafe, insisting that the photographer try Friday, when Mr. Lapid would don a jacket to meet with the German foreign minister.

He was sanguine about his situation, rejecting the conventional wisdom that he has made a series of missteps.

“Making hard choices always seems to be mistakes, but these are not mistakes,” he said. “If you want to change a country, you’re going to be bumped every now and then.”

Ethan Bronner and Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 20, 2013

An earlier version of this story misstated the timing of Secretary of State John Kerry’s arrival in Israel. He is scheduled to arrive this week, not next week.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/20/world/middleeast/fresh-israeli-face-plays-down-political-decline.html?partner=rss&emc=rss