Yair Lapid to Al Majalla: A Palestinian state will be delayed significantly, but the idea not dead

Israel's opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid speaks to Al Majalla in an exclusive interview

Axel Rangel Garcia/Eyal Warshavsky/Majalla

Yair Lapid to Al Majalla: A Palestinian state will be delayed significantly, but the idea not dead

Israel’s opposition leader, Yair Lapid, has spoken to Al Majalla’s Senior Political Editor Ahmed Maher in a wide-ranging interview at his office in the Knesset in western Jerusalem.

The former prime minister says the Israelis and the Palestinians need to do whatever they can to solve the decades-long conflict in a way that will ensure future generations a secure and prosperous life in the region.

But he thinks that the 7 October attacks by Hamas will ‘significantly’ delay a long-awaited Palestinian state. Mr Lapid also believes that Israel’s ‘conflict management’ policy, during both war and peace times, isn’t effective and the conflict should be ‘resolved’.

“The time for us to be vague about the future of our country is gone. We need to make sure people understand the vision for Israel’s future,” he said.

Mr Lapid, who formed his party Yesh Atid (There is a Future) in 2012 to champion liberal views and support the struggling middle class, believes that Israel needs centrist politics today and that the far right is dangerous to his country.

“They are just good at shouting but not governing,” he said.

The journalist-turned-politician stresses that Israel can’t live with Hamas on its doorstep and believes it should be eradicated, both as an organisation and an ideology.

Eyal Warshavsky/Majalla
Israeli opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid during the interview with Al Majalla in his Knesset office in Jerusalem

I asked him about what has changed in Israel’s political thinking after 7 October, whether a Palestinian state today has become a necessity for Israel’s national security, and his reaction to the growing international criticism of the conduct of the Israel Defence Forces in Gaza, as they are accused by international human rights organisations of launching a runaway war that indiscriminately killed thousands of civilians.

On whether the two-state solution has become a byword for diplomatic failure, the seasoned politician, who served as prime minister in 2022 and finance minister in 2014, has disagreed, arguing that the Palestinians should have a state, govern themselves, and live with dignity.

“I don't think the idea is dead; I think it will be delayed significantly because we need to find ways to secure the safety of our people,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners have rejected the two-state solution. The internationally-backed recipe for peace envisages an independent Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank alongside Israel, with Jerusalem as their shared capital.

Born in Tel Aviv in 1963 to a father who survived the Holocaust, Mr Lapid also says Israel has been distracted by the political turmoil at the expense of its own security.

Mr Lapid doesn’t believe that Israel faces an existential threat from Hamas or Lebanon’s Hezbollah. "They represent a threat but not an existential threat to Israel," he said.

“We are here to stay. The one thing that the Arab world must understand is we are not guests in the Middle East. Hezbollah and Hamas are the ones who are going to disappear,” he added.

Below is the complete transcript of the interview:

Al Majalla: Were you concerned before 7 October, or perhaps you warned others that Hamas might have been planning a major attack against Israel?

Lapid: I did. On 20 September, I gave a speech here (in the Knesset) against the will of my entire staff. I said we are at the risk of a multi-arena explosion. I did this because of the kind of intelligence I am exposed to. And I have mentioned Gaza as not only a possibility but also a probability.

I have said we must be more alert to the security risks. At the time, as you might recall, the entire country was totally entangled in an internal dispute over legal issues. So we were in the midst of massive political turmoil, and I was talking about the fact that we have to concentrate more on security because security risks are not being attended to.

What was the reaction?

There was no reaction. I mean, listen, I don't presume or pretend. Nobody could predict what happened later. However, I felt the country was preoccupied with political affairs and needed to focus more on security.

What has changed in Israel's strategic political thinking after 7 October?

That's a great question. I would say it is the understanding that we need to work more on our strategic alliances, opposite an enemy that is brutal and has developed abilities we were not aware of. This is a threat to everybody. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, of course, Jordan as well. So, I think we need to invest more as a society on two issues: One is our security, and second, is our strategic alliances. We can work within the region to confront mutual threats.

Has a Palestinian state today become a necessity or a threat to Israel’s national security?

What happened on 7 October has postponed the possibility of the two-state solution, and I say this as a supporter of this solution. Those of us who support the establishment of a Palestinian state always said that we need to make sure that we have the security measures that Israel needs to make sure that our people are safe.

The whole concept of what is security for people has changed on 7 October. Hamas is a pan-Arab fundamentalist Islamist terror organisation. They don't think anything in terms of states. Like the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, they believe in creating a caliphate from Iraq all the way to Egypt. So, they don't want a Palestinian state, and they're doing everything in their evil power to postpone this idea. So, I don't think the idea is dead; I think it will be delayed significantly because we need to find ways to secure the safety of our people.

But Hamas has never said they wanted to establish an Islamic caliphate like IS did.

I suggest you just read the manifesto of Hamas. And you can focus especially on the parts that have to do with Jews and Christians. They want to kill, and that is the one thing that looks similar to IS. They want to kill Jews; they want to kill Christians, and they want to kill moderate Muslims. And to prevent that we all have to unify and work against it.

Israel has been managing the conflict for many years. What do you make of this political strategy?

The Israeli left has made the mistake of thinking that in the Middle East, you can sign a piece of paper, and everybody will hug, and this will be the end of the conflict. This is not how it works.

The mistake of the Israeli right is what you said: they thought the conflict can be managed. It cannot. It needs to be solved. But it needs to be solved gradually. It needs to be solved carefully. And it needs to be solved with the right answers to Israel's security needs. And it needs to solve the basic problem we have with the Palestinians.

The Palestinians want to live with dignity and be respected as people who can govern themselves, which is fine. I am telling you this not just as a political leader but also as a parent: you don't pass on the problems you can solve to your children. You try to solve them.

So, my generation needs to do more than manage the conflict. We need to do whatever we can to solve it to ensure our children will have a prosperous life here in the region.

Do you think the two-state solution has proved to be a big diplomatic failure?

The fact that there is this evil coalition of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, which are doing their best to prevent the idea of peace between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, of course, is not very helpful.

Do you admit then the two-state solution is a byword for failure?

No. I said it has yet to happen. There are a lot of obstacles. It’s our duty towards the future generations — Palestinians and Israelis alike — to live side by side in peace.

Do you still believe in the two-state solution?

Yes. As prime minister last year, I spoke in front of the General Assembly of the UN about the two-state solution being the right solution.

What will you do if you are at the helm today, especially with the expanding settlements? Today, you have around 800,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and these settlements are regarded as illegal by the UN and several foreign governments.

Basically, any peace agreement is about compromises. Otherwise, it is not an agreement. And let me remind you that since the 1967 war, Israel has offered the Palestinians a state of their own four times — and four times, they declined.

The last time was in 2014 when I was in the government. It was known as the John Kerry framework. I was part of the negotiating team myself. I am telling you, we offered them a state. Netanyahu was prime minister, the settlements were there, and we offered them a state.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas went to the White House and sat with President Obama and said no way. They declined our offer and any opportunity for self-governance, which is a shame. If there is a deradicalised Palestinian Authority that doesn’t teach in a school that Jews are monkeys and pigs, that doesn’t cherish a culture of death, we will find ways to compromise our way into peace.

Let me repeat my question if it wasn’t clear enough: how can the Palestinians have their own state while the occupied West Bank has settlements deep inside?

I didn't want to be too specific because everyone understands that compromises are crucial to any peace agreement. But you don't go into the details until you have to. Right now, we are only preoccupied with the fate of the Israeli hostages and citizens kidnapped in Gaza by Hamas. We hope for the help of all our friends in the region, including the Saudis. Whatever you can do to help us bring our people and children all back home.

What do you make of the assessment of Israel's closest ally, the US, whose Defence Secretary Austin Lloyd believes that Israel is driving civilians to “the arms of the enemy” in Gaza if it doesn’t protect civilians in the current war? He said Israel risks replacing “a tactical victory with a strategic defeat”.

Israel has no wish or will to hurt civilians; we are doing everything we can to avoid people who have nothing to do with the terror attacks of Hamas. The problem we have in Gaza is the problem we always had with Hamas, which is they are using their own people as human shields. That’s all.

It’s a monstrous idea. It’s a preposterous idea. And people find it very hard to comprehend. But this is the enemy we have to fight; we will do everything in our power to ensure people have water, food, medicine and humanitarian aid. And we are trying to move them away from the battle zone as much as possible.

But people have to understand we will eradicate Hamas in Gaza. We cannot live next to Hamas in Gaza because we saw what happens when you allow a terror organisation to be on your doorstep.

Do you think Hamas is becoming more popular in Gaza and the West Bank due to the Israeli military response to the its attacks? There’s growing criticism of the military strategy of the Israeli army, which’s seen as collective punishment, runaway and indiscriminate.

Well, it might be the first reaction, but it's not going to last because when the dust settles, and they look around them, they will see that Hamas has brought only death and destruction to the people of Gaza. I mean, the Israelis were the victims of Hamas on 7 October, and the people of Gaza are the victims of Hamas now.

I think I trust the intelligence of the people of Gaza to understand who brought this destruction upon their heads: Hamas. So maybe they are gaining popularity now. I mean, which is almost understandable in the midst of war, but they are not going to stay popular with the people of Gaza. The Palestinians, in general, and the Arab world will understand, when the war ends, that it was Hamas that caused their horrific fate.

What if the Palestinians had democratic and free elections and they voted for Hamas after the war?

Well, then, it's not a free election. Any democratic country will tell you the same thing: terror organisations are not allowed to run for office. Can you imagine Hezbollah running in France or al-Qaeda running in England? No. Hamas shouldn't be allowed to run for election.

How can you be confident about the total eradication of Hamas given that it's not just about military factors but an idea, an ideology?

Well, to start with, everybody is saying that you cannot eradicate an idea. This might be true, but you can eradicate a bad idea, and Hamas is a bad idea. We know the size of Hamas, the actual size of Hamas. We know how Hamas operates.

We were taken by surprise on 7 October, but now we have total determination — even if it might be a long battle — to eradicate Hamas. It is going to happen. Look, everyone knows that the people of Gaza suffer, while Hamas leaders like Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashal and their families live like billionaires overseas. Their people live in tents, while they live in luxurious properties, hotels and own malls around the world. We are already talking to the Americans to hit the pockets of Hamas hard.

There's a rise in the popularity of the far right and right-wing in Israel. The far right is in coalition with Benjamin Netanyahu, and they are notorious for their racism against the Arabs and the Palestinians.

I’m happily contradicting you. The far-right within the (ruling) coalition has about 14 seats in Knesset. Right now (in the war cabinet), they have between seven and ten. So, the numbers show otherwise. And I'm happy about this, because I think they're a threat to the country. They are not gaining popularity. Interestingly enough, when they are in power, when they're part of the coalition, people tend to notice the fact that they are very good at shouting and marching, but they are not very good at governing.

Does Israel face an existential threat from Hamas and Hezbollah?

No. Hamas and Hezbollah are terror organisations, but we are still the strongest military power in the region. They represent a threat but not an existential threat to Israel.

The one thing that the Arab world has to understand is we are not guests in the Middle East. We are here to stay; Israel is going to stay. Israel is reaching out to the Saudis, the Emiratis and any country. The beginning of any dialogue needs to start with the full understanding that we are not going anywhere and Hezbollah and Hamas are the ones who are going to disappear.

Do you think a dialogue with Iran is possible, or is confrontation your best answer?

Well, if there's one thing 7 October teaches us, it is that you cannot deal with fundamentalists —brutal fundamentalists. If Iran completely dismantles its nuclear programme and its militias all around the Middle East aimed at undermining other governments — be it Saudi or Israeli — if Iran stops financing terror all around the world, then maybe we will be able to start negotiations. Today, Iran is doing none of the above. And therefore, it is not to be negotiated with. We must stand together and oppose terror.

Menachem Begin, Shamir, Rabin, Barak, all of them as former prime ministers had peace projects with the Palestinians. But Netanyahu, in the view of many politicians around the world and many Israeli citizens, has undermined any prospects for peace. Do you think his right-wing political ideology will continue after this war ends?

I think we are marching towards a new Israel; I think everything has changed. I think the Israeli political establishment owes the public an explanation and a more clear vision of the future for the next generations. And without pinpointing anyone in particular, I think the time for us to be vague about the future of our country is over.

We need to work more, and we need to make sure people understand what the vision of Israel’s future is — the future of Israel. This not only has to do with security, or with the Palestinians or with their work; it also has to do with the kind of politics we want, the kind of economy we want.

We must also have alliances with the Western world and more moderate Sunni states. So, I don't know if it's a question about Netanyahu, but it's a question about Israel.

Can you elaborate more on what you mean by strategic alliances in the region?

I mean, strong relations with more moderate states — first and foremost, Saudi Arabia. We need this kind of cooperation. I think that normalisation with Saudi Arabia is very important and will happen. Saudi Arabia won't be intimidated by terrorists who wanted to undermine normalisation by carrying out the attack on 7 October.

If Saudi Arabia has a specific vision of the relationship with Israel, it's going to follow its own vision and is not going to allow a bunch of terrorists to bend its arm. And the same applies to Israel. We must move forward on all positive things we can work together on.

Eyal Warshavsky/Majalla

Let me ask about the internal political turmoil in Israel, do you think the Israelis today need a centrist-led government or a government led by the right wing?

The people today want unity. They want us to move towards each other instead of away from each other. And people understand, to a limit, that only a centrist country can do the things we need most. So, if we look into future scenarios, I believe a centrist-led government will bring both security and prosperity.

Israel needs this. We have just suffered a horrible blow, but we are people who know how to recover. My father was a child in the Budapest ghetto during the Holocaust. And we have been to the dark places before and know how to recover from it and make the most out of it.

How about the allegations, acutally leaks, that Israel had plans to force the Palestinians into Egypt’s Sinai? I mean, the Palestinians are continually being displaced from the north to the centre and now to the south. Then to Egypt, right?

Whatever is going to happen, we will coordinate it with the Egyptians. We have a peace agreement with them. Egypt is a sovereign state, a country, and an important country. And everything that will happen on the Egyptian border will be something we have coordinated very carefully with the Egyptians. So, we will not force anything on the Egyptians. We have a very productive dialogue with them. And we're going to make sure this is how it will continue. We won't force people into Egypt.

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