A Defining Moment for Yair Lapid

By | Aug 08, 2022
Jewish Politics & Power, Latest
A graphic montage depicting Yair Lapid and the Iron Dome missile interception defense system.

Jewish politics and power

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1. Is it too early for lessons from the latest Gaza flareup?

The latest round of fighting in Gaza came to an end Sunday evening with Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) agreeing to abide by an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire.

It was yet another of what seems to be an endless cycle of violent flareups between Israel and Gaza’s Palestinian militants, not dissimilar to last May’s round, to the previous one in 2014, or the operation of 2012, or that of 2009.

But there are a few characteristics that make the latest operation stand out: It targeted only Palestinian Islamic Jihad—the smaller Gaza organization—not Hamas; it lasted only three days; and it ended with no casualties on the Israeli side.

Although it is probably too early to judge this ceasefire and too soon to know whether it will hold and for how long, many Israelis see it as perhaps the most successful Gaza operation in years.

According to Israeli government officials and the former generals who have been flooding the airwaves since the launch of the attack, Israel took out two of PIJ’s senior leaders in Gaza, arrested another in the West Bank, and degraded the group’s ability to launch rockets into Israel. Israel also won the public diplomacy war, thanks to the quick conclusion of the skirmish (which took place during the weekend, when international attention is distracted) and to the relatively low number of civilian casualties on the Palestinian side. Forty Gazans were killed in the operation, some of them PIJ militants and others civilian bystanders, including children. Israel has shown video evidence proving that some of the civilians, including children, died as a result of PIJ rocket misfires.

It was also a defining moment for Yair Lapid, Israel’s prime minister, who took office less than two months ago and will face elections in three months. For a politician like Lapid, who came to office with no real combat background, having managed a successful military operation could help him when Israelis go to the polls on November 1.

2. How did Washington handle the Gaza fighting?

The Israeli operation caught Washington by surprise. There was very little early warning, and, in any case, the Biden administration was busy with other pressing issues: dealing with China’s tantrum over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, fighting inflation and gas prices at home, and making the final push in Congress to pass an ambitious climate and health care bill.

Luckily, there was no need for real American intervention.

Ever since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005, U.S. administrations have been reluctant to take a leading role in mediating between Israel and Hamas or PIJ. The reason partly has to do with these two groups being designated terror organizations, which the U.S. cannot deal with, but also is due to a long-standing regional strategy that outsources this type of mediation to Egypt, a top American ally in the region, and at times to Qatar.

A notable exception was in May 2021, when Biden felt that these efforts weren’t delivering the desired results and stepped in with some high-level intervention. Biden still takes credit for making sure that round ended relatively quickly and with fewer casualties than previous flareups.

This is a comfortable spot for American Middle East policy: The U.S. has no strategic goal in the region right now and no plan for solving the problem called Gaza. And when America’s sole purpose is to contain the violence and allow Israel some space for what it sees as counterterrorism operations, there’s really no need for the U.S. to lean in with its diplomatic force. A local solution, brokered by regional actors, works just fine in delivering calm and minimizing America’s footprint.

3. Iron Dome’s bang for the buck

Remember last year’s political brouhaha over Iron Dome funding?

For those who need a refresher, here’s a quick summary: Israel’s stockpile of Iron Dome interceptors ran dangerously low following the 2021 Gaza war. Biden agreed to provide $1 billion in aid to Israel for replenishment. When it reached Congress, all hell broke loose. Progressive Democrats tried to block the legislation, which was attached to another bill. Then, Democratic leaders pushed forward a stand-alone bill, which, after an emotional House debate, passed with a huge majority, only to get stuck for months in the Senate where Republican Rand Paul didn’t want to let the money go. The legislative roller coaster ended with a belated approval of the funding.

Now look at what Iron Dome did in this latest conflict:

According to the Israeli military, the system was successful in intercepting more than 95 percent of PIJ rockets that crossed the border into Israeli territory. This is an astounding figure in the world of missile defense and a clear indication of the system’s technological superiority.

But it also demonstrates the importance of Iron Dome in preventing unnecessary escalation. Every rocket intercepted is a rocket that otherwise could have hit and harmed Israeli civilians. Every Israeli civilian killed or injured would have meant another retaliatory attack by Israel, more victims on the Palestinian side and a longer and costlier confrontation.

So while progressives may have misgivings about American military aid to Israel, and while Sen. Paul’s aversion to spending U.S. dollars overseas may make sense to some, the fact is that funding Iron Dome is one of the best uses of foreign aid dollars.

It doesn’t solve any problem, but it can limit conflicts, making them more manageable for Israelis, for Palestinians and for Americans too.

4. Mr. Orban goes to Texas

In other news, Hungary’s nationalistic right-wing prime minister Viktor Orban, who is known for his anti-immigrant stances and whose obsessive focus on Jewish billionaire George Soros has branded him as antisemitic among many Jewish activists, was in the U.S. last week. He didn’t make a stop at the White House, but he did pay a visit to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which took place in Dallas, Texas.

Orban came fresh off his latest scandal back home, which was ignited after he stated that the Hungarian people “do not want to become peoples of mixed race.”

This was too much even for one of his top aides, who resigned after describing his comments as “pure Nazi.”

True to form, Orban did not apologize. Instead, he explained to CPAC attendants that “a Christian politician cannot be racist.”

Orban’s flirtations with antisemitism—most notably singling out Soros to trying to minimize Hungary’s role in the Holocaust—are well documented. Former U.S. special envoy on combating antisemitism and Moment Institute fellow Ira Forman did an excellent job explaining Orban’s record, and his attempts to whitewash it, in a recent Jerusalem Post article.

Orban has many apologists across the world, among them the Israeli government, which has been willing to turn a blind eye to his comments and actions due to his pro-Israel stance in the European arena.

At CPAC, Orban found another friend: Yishai Fleisher, a spokesperson for Israeli settlers. He tweeted a photo he took with Orban at the conservative conference, writing: “GREAT meeting with modern hero of nationalism, leader in the defense of Europe against Jihadist emigration, and ally of Israel – #Hungary PM Viktor Orbán.”

There are many issues separating Israel and American Jews. This is one of them.

Not all Israelis support Orban’s xenophobic views, nor is that support an established Israeli government policy. But many believe that Israel should embrace any ally it can get, even  a nationalistic demagogue who is shunned by many in the world and in the Jewish community.

5. Waiving those pesky visas

Israel really wants to join the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which would allow its citizens to enter the United States for short visits without obtaining a tourist visa (and without waiting for an appointment at the U.S. embassy, where the waiting time is currently measured in months, not days.) There’s nothing new about Israel’s push to join the program. It’s been going on for years.

What is new is the enthusiastic response this request is now receiving from the U.S. administration. In fact, as events of recent weeks have shown, the U.S. probably wants this even more than Israel does.

There’s a long list of requirements a country needs to fulfill in order to join the Visa Waiver Program, and for the first time in decades, Israel has checked off most of them. The final sticking point is allowing information sharing with the U.S. government regarding the criminal records of Israelis traveling to the country. This should have been the easiest step, but it failed to pass in the Knesset due to resistance from the Likud Party.

Why would Israel’s key opposition party block a move that would benefit all Israelis, including Likud voters?

Mainly because it believes that after the November elections, Benjamin Netanyahu will take over as prime minister again and will be able to register the visa waiver as his own political achievement.

But the U.S. has no patience for these political games. Officials in the U.S. embassy in Israel have made it clear that if the Likud doesn’t let the bill pass, it will be at least another year before Israelis will be able to enter the U.S. visa-free. In addition, U.S. ambassador to Israel Tom Nides has frequently spoken out about the need to remove this final hurdle and allow Israel ascension to the program before the end of 2022.

Why does the U.S. care so much if Israelis get a visa waiver?

In part, because Nides and State Department officials are fully invested in this. But also because the Biden administration understands that allowing Israeli tourists into America without visas will improve relations between the countries and build trust between the government in Jerusalem and the Biden administration. Biden may pressure Israel here and there on the Palestinian issue. He may even rejoin the Iran nuclear deal despite Israel’s reservations. But if he allows Israeli tourists in freely, just like citizens of most European countries, all will be forgiven and he’ll go down in Israeli history as a real hero.

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