JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has “no intention” of discussing peace with the Palestinians, opposition leader Yair Lapid told AFP ahead of the signing of a landmark deal with the UAE. US President Donald Trump will host a ceremony at which Netanyahu will sign normalisation deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the first Israel has agreed with an Arab state since the 1990s.
While centrist leader Lapid welcomed the Gulf deals, he argued Israel should also resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians. “The current government is saying we have achieved agreements with moderate Sunni countries without paying the price of negotiating with the Palestinians. What I say is it’s not a price. It’s an Israeli interest,” he told AFP at his parliamentary office.
The Palestinian leadership has slammed the Gulf deals for going against decades of consensus among Arab states that a Palestinian peace deal is a prerequisite for ties with Israel. Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party, criticised the Palestinians for waiting for the Arab world and the international community to “do the job for them”. “They need to be proactive instead of victimising themselves forever, instead of complaining all the time,” said Lapid, arguing the Palestinians’ fundamental demands were unrealistic.
Palestinians have called for an independent state based on the internationally recognised borders that existed before the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel seized swathes of territory including east Jerusalem and the West Bank. They have also called for refugees displaced since the creation of Israel in 1948 to be allowed to return along with their descendants. “This is not going to work,” said Lapid, a clean-cut former TV journalist. “They need to go back to the table. We need to go back to the table.”
The last round of peace talks collapsed in 2014 and the Palestinians have rejected initiatives by the Trump administration for their pro-Israeli bias. Lapid’s office is decorated with photos of him with world leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and US presidential candidate Joe Biden, while Trump is notably absent. “I think we need to move forward and discuss this with the Palestinians under the two-state solution, and I don’t think this government is going to do anything about it,” he said.
Lapid accused Netanyahu’s government of having “no intention of discussing anything with the Palestinians” as many of the premier’s right-wing voters are against the creation of a Palestinian state. He also pointed to the legal woes of the prime minister, who is currently on trial for corruption, as a further reason peace talks were off the agenda. A former finance minister under Netanyahu, Lapid stood firm in opposition to the veteran premier following March elections.
His former allies Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi defected to join Netanyahu’s government and now serve as defence and foreign ministers respectively. Pointing to the Gulf deals, Lapid said it was clear both ministers “have no influence whatsoever” in government. Netanyahu “signed the deal with the Emirates and yet later with Bahrain without telling them. It’s not only that he didn’t consult with them. They didn’t even know,” Lapid said.
Netanyahu flew to the US just moments after announcing a second nationwide lockdown to tackle the coronavirus, a sign according to Lapid of the government’s “complete failure” to address the health crisis. “It’s a very aggressive move. It’s devastating for the economy and it’s not that helpful in terms of stopping the epidemic,” Lapid said. According to an AFP tally over the past fortnight, Israel is second behind Bahrain for the world’s highest coronavirus infection rate.
“The only reason our government has decided to go into the second lockdown is because they’re completely lost,” Lapid said. Tens of thousands of Israelis have demonstrated in recent weeks, calling for Netanyahu to resign over the graft allegations and his handling of the pandemic and its economic fallout. While Lapid has steered clear of the rallies outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence, he has joined protesters who appear along highways each Saturday evening. “I need to be able to have a clear enough message for the people in order to gain from this,” he said.
Although Netanyahu’s popularity has waned, his Likud party still tops opinion polls while Lapid’s Yesh Atid party is third behind the far-right Yamina party. With many Israelis more focused on coronavirus and the ensuing financial crisis than the Gulf deals, the opposition chief believes he will be in a strong position when the next round of elections comes. “Netanyahu never in his life ran on a bad economy,” he said. – AFP