An interim score: A minus for Israel’s new government on leadership and change

FM Yair Lapid, on Tuesday, June 29, became the first Israeli minister to visit the UAE. He was set to gather the fruits planted by his predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, after trashing the former leader’s “mistakes” in a conversation with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Netanyahu was left to watch TV as his most vocal foe dedicated the first Israel embassy in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi and consulate in Dubai. These ceremonies capped the epic Middle East triumph of the Abraham Accords, shared by Netanyahu and former US President Donald Trump, that cut down Israel’s highest barriers with the Arab world. While profiting from history, Lapid kept the two sidelined statesmen in low profile although he admitted Netanyahu’s role. The presence of its two architects on this occasion would have lent headline-grabbing glitter to a drab ceremonial, attended by second-tier Emirates personages.

In their first fortnight since replacing the Netanyahu government, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and alternate PM Yair Lapid look at best uncertain. Still fixated on knocking their predecessors, they are held back from leading a deeply mismatched team forward to new fields. Netanyahu, at the head of an unforgiving opposition is, for his part, giving them no quarter.

Bennet has avoided crediting his predecessor for pulling the country out of the covid-19 pandemic by mass-vaccinations, while himself floundering against the new Delta variant, with no new answers.

The new government’s most outstanding features to date are:

  1. The self-styled “government of change” has presented nothing new.
  2. Bennett has not stepped into the role and image of a national leader.
  3. Lapid is struggling to fill Netanyahu’s shoes on foreign relations, while kowtowing to Washington in a way atypical for his predecessors.
  4. Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, after remarking that he is no Santa Claus, has fallen silent although economic reform is pivotal to the forging of any new policies.
  5. Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s sour face bespeaks his resentment at being cold-shouldered by the close Bennett-Lapid rapport and his belief that he should have been prime minister.
  6. The ministers representing eight parties have so far failed to get together on any substantial legislation or common messages.

Bennet’s pledge that “We have come here to work hard for the people – not ourselves” has not resonated. Neither was evidence produced to back Lapid’s contention that the new ministers had found their departments sunk in “neglect and destruction” and would have “to rebuild them from scratch.”
Both these complaints are typical tactics practiced by new brooms in government to account for their early stages of mismanagement. But Lapid took this to an embarrassing level on June 26, when he met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Rome for what was described as a reset of post-Trump and post-Netanyahu relations. He used the occasion to criticize his predecessors: “In the past few years, mistakes were made,” he told Blinken. “Israel’s bipartisan standing was hurt. We will fix those mistakes together.”

Lapid, far from behaving like his country’s top diplomat, erred by an unseemly comment about his country’s government to a foreign official. By trying too hard to defer to the US, Lapid betrayed his own personal weakness.

Although President Joe Biden reiterated his pledge not to let Iran acquire a nuclear weapon, when he received Israel’s outgoing president Reuven Rivlin at the White House on Monday, the two countries are poles apart on the road to this objective: Biden insists on the diplomatic path, while Israel rejects the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal. They are equally divided on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the Gaza question. Pressures here have the potential for breaking up the partnership between right-wing Bennett and centrist Lapid and bringing their government crashing down.  The varying interests between Jerusalem and Washington call for firm Israeli leadership in Israel’s top diplomatic post. That is as yet painfully lacking.  

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