Hard Questions, Tough Answers- Testing Lapid; Testing Biden (July 5, 2022)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Yair Lapid became caretaker prime minister of Israel at midnight last Thursday. If Israel’s November 1 Knesset elections produce a viable new coalition, Lapid may serve for only six months or so. Who is testing him so early in the game?

A. The immediate test was a reconnaissance flight Saturday by three Hizballah drones from Lebanon, flying toward Israel’s Karish gas drilling installation in the Mediterranean. The Israel Air Force and Navy shot down all three drones.

This was Hizballah serving notice that the issue of delineating a border between Israeli and Lebanese maritime energy exploration zones is hot, and disputed. Hizballah is testing the new Israeli prime minister’s resolve. And it is serving notice that it will oppose any Lebanese concessions to Israel and any agreement that hints at normalization of relations.

Hizballah is trying to intimidate not only the Lapid government’s negotiators, but those of Lebanon, too. Small wonder the Hizballah stunt was criticized by Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Foreign Minister Abdullah Abu Habib, who noted, “We have no interest in unnecessary confrontations.” Lebanon, a broke and broken country, desperately needs to reach a deal with Israel that allows it to start pumping natural gas from the Mediterranean floor.

Indeed, Israel and Lebanon, with heavy US involvement, are not far from a maritime border agreement. This is now Lapid’s ‘baby’. So is the ‘campaign between wars’ between Israel and Iran in Syria, where the IAF reportedly attacked over the weekend.

Either of these conflicts could escalate and test Lapid’s decision-making acumen. Recall the 2006 Second Lebanon War, which began on the watch of Ehud Olmert, then also a fledgling prime minister lacking in the security experience vital for ‘instant’ decision-making in the strategic sphere. As with Olmert, Lebanon could make or break Lapid’s brief premiership.

Q. Speaking of Lebanon and war, the First Lebanon War began just 40 years ago. Prime Minister Menachem Begin was led astray by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Israel found itself far deeper inside Lebanon than the 40-kilometer penetration Sharon lied to Begin about. It took 18 years to get out, at a cost of hundreds of IDF casualties.

A. Indeed, the lesson of 1982 is that Lapid, who in his first prime ministerial address to the public Saturday night actually cited Begin (along with David Ben Gurion) as a role model, must beware of being led astray by his security chiefs. Even if they have the best of intentions when briefing Lapid, all parties should be keenly aware of the new prime minister’s lack of strategic security experience.

Q. And on the Palestinian issue, where is Lapid likely to be tested?

A. Lapid, unlike his predecessor Bennett, avowedly endorses a two-state solution. Yet he presides over the same government that Bennett headed, which has strictly avoided advocating any political movement with the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership because its right, center, left and Arab component parties recognize that they are incapable of agreeing on this issue.

It is no accident that the Palestinian question has been left to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, whose focus is obviously on security--though sometimes, as in the case of his crackdown on Palestinian civil society organizations, to what appears to be an exaggerated degree.

Now there are indications that the Ramallah leadership somehow expects Lapid to ‘deliver’ new Israeli political concessions to the Palestinians. US President Biden could conceivably be making a similar assumption regarding Lapid’s flexibility toward the Palestinians. Even the Shireen Abu Akleh case (the Al Jazeera TV journalist killed near Jenin in the West Bank), where on Monday ballistics analysis of the fatal bullet proved inconclusive regarding the IDF role, could yet require a Lapid government stand and statement and instantly complicate Lapid’s life.

Q. Did Lapid’s first address to the nation as prime minister, Saturday evening, offer any clues as to how he will manage these sorts of tests?

A. Not really. It was all platitudes about ‘shared values’ and ‘unity’ in a country that is far from being united. It was all feel-good and inspirational, which has been Lapid’s ticket to voter approval since he entered politics more than a decade ago. We were not told by Lapid how he intends to deal with Lebanon, Iran, the Palestinians, or for that matter the ongoing economic crisis of rising inflation, rising rents and rising electricity rates.  

True, by comparison to Netanyahu’s inherent divisiveness, Lapid’s feel-good approach could be considered good news. But Lapid has yet to prove himself in a crisis of strategic proportions--the kind of crisis that in Israel lurks inevitably just around the corner.

We wish him luck.

Q. While we’re discussing the testing of leaders in a Middle East context, where will US President Joe Biden be tested during his mid-July visit to the Middle East?

A. At the moral/ethical level, Biden will be tested by his dealings with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. MbS will be Biden’s official host in Saudi Arabia. How will Biden deal with MbS’s two most disastrous abuses of leadership: the brutal Jamal Khashoggi murder in 2018 in Istanbul and the Saudi-led military misadventure in Yemen, which commenced in 2015 and is still ongoing? How can Biden work with MbS for the common Middle East good, yet maintain the integrity of Washington’s strong reservations regarding his leadership record?

At the grand strategic level, Biden will be tested in his ability to tighten the nascent anti-Iran alliance being formed among the US, Israel and the Sunni Arab leaders he will meet with in Saudi Arabia. Here the groundwork has already been laid. But Biden will need to take concrete steps that go beyond rhetoric, to combat the impression throughout the region that the US is disengaging from the Middle East.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Lapid’s political future (he is 58) could be heavily molded by the success or failure of his leadership endeavors in the coming months.

As for Biden, whether he succeeds or fails in his Saudi endeavors will almost certainly not be the most influential factor in US presidential and congressional politics. But it will go a long way toward determining Biden’s capacity to deal with the inevitable Middle East crises that lie ahead in the next two and a half years