Yair Lapid is not only the finance minister; he is also a member of the Political-Security Cabinet, and his opinions on these issues may be crucial when the time comes to make decisions. Lapid does not reveal these opinions often. Last week I spoke with him about his diplomatic viewpoints.
"I believe in a 'two states for two peoples' solution. I do not think there is anything more dangerous than the idea of a binational state. The goal of a binational state is shared by the extreme Left and the extreme Right," he told me. "I am not there. I'm a Zionist."
This is a general statement, I said. What should be done in the near future? "We seek an interim agreement," Lapid replied. According to him, striving for a final peace agreement is impractical. Israel should therefore agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders. A state with temporary borders? I was puzzled, as the Palestinians had rejected this concept out of hand. "They rejected it because they feared the temporary would become permanent," Lapid said.
In order to bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiation table, Obama must ratify former President Bush's letter to former Prime Minister Sharon – the letter which led Israel to adopt the American "road map" for peace. At the same time, Lapid said, Obama must set a timeframe for talks on the permanent borders – three years from now. This way, Lapid explained, the temporary Palestinian state will really be temporary.
The minister does not believe a permanent agreement with the Palestinians would signal the end of the conflict. According to him, ending the conflict would require a solution to two core issues – Jerusalem and the refugees. These issues, Lapid said, are why the negotiations have always hit an impasse. Therefore, he claims, it is preferable to put these issues on the back burner and make do with something that is less than an end to the conflict.
The agreements you seek with the Palestinians, I noted, will lead to the mass evacuation of settlements. Do you expect the Netanyahu government to authorize such an evacuation? Lapid posits that his Yesh Atid party, Hatnua and numerous members of Likud-Beiteinu would vote in favor of such an agreement. Naftali Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi party, Lapid claims, will quit the government only after an actual withdrawal is decided on. It will not leave the coalition while negotiations are ongoing.
And what about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas? Lapid is more concerned about the Palestinian leader. "Abu Mazen," he said, "Is still not mentally prepared for an agreement with Israel – not for a full agreement and not for a partial one." The minister described Abbas as "one of the founders of the Palestinian victimhood concept, which is the main obstacle on the road to reconciliation."
Is Bibi mentally prepared for a compromise? I asked. "Yes," Lapid answered, somewhat hesitant. Netanyahu, he estimates, is currently fighting for his place in Israeli history, and he also understands that this place will not be influenced by this or that response to a mortar shell fired from Gaza, but by his ability, as a leader, to reach a lasting agreement with the Palestinian people. This is why it is safe to assume that he will 'go for it.'
Lapid is not the only one who believes this. Sources close to the prime minister, currently and in the past, speak of his growing willingness to take a dramatic unilateral step for the Palestinians in case the proposal for temporary borders and an interim agreement does not reach the implementation stage. According to the sources, Bibi is closer than ever to reaching a decision on a unilateral withdrawal near the separation fence, without getting anything in return from the Palestinian Authority. He is prepared for a "historic act that would surpass the disengagement from Gaza."
I listen to these assessments with a lot of skepticism. During Netanyahu's previous term as prime minister, I was convinced he would move toward some sort of agreement with the Palestinians. And if not, I thought, he would decide in favor of a unilateral agreement. After all, the Labor Party was part of the coalition. But I was wrong; four whole years have passed, and nothing has happened. It is not at all certain that something will happen by 2017.