Yair Lapid will become Israel’s prime minister on August 27, 2023, if things go according to plan—which, in Israeli politics, they almost never do. But when Lapid—the architect of Israel’s current coalition, its foreign minister, and the leader of its largest party—speaks, it matters. Most of the time, his job is to serve as the adult in the room, a sensible spokesperson for the country’s fractious and Frankensteinian government, which spans from secular leftists to settler rightists to Arab Islamists. But on occasion, he breaks from the script on a point of principle. This story is about one of those moments.
Earlier this month, I interviewed Lapid for my Atlantic newsletter, asking him about Israeli democracy, Arab equality, and other core challenges facing the Jewish state. But one thing Lapid told me deserves special mention, because it speaks directly to a controversy that has recently exploded into public view and rattled the Israeli government: settler violence against Palestinians.
According to researchers, media reports, and eyewitness testimony, violence perpetrated by residents of far-flung Jewish outposts in the West Bank—many of them illegal under Israel’s own laws—has surged over the past year. These attacks range from individual assaults to the ransacking of villages. As The Times of Israel reported, “Security officials say that this year has seen a drastic spike in violence by Jewish extremists in the West Bank. In 2020, the Shin Bet registered 272 violent incidents in the disputed territory; so far in 2021, the domestic security agency has recorded 397, with two weeks still to go before year’s end.” To date, most of those behind these acts of nationalist terror against Palestinians have gone unpunished.
Lapid has voiced his concern about this problem for some time. When he first became the leader of Israel’s opposition, in May 2020, he told me, “Yes, there are within the supporters and even some of the Knesset members of the Joint Arab List, people who are supporting terror … But you also have within the Israeli extreme right people who support terror and you cannot accept this either.”
Not everyone in the current Israeli coalition agrees with this framing, however, a split that became apparent this week in a very public way. Earlier this week, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland visited Israel and met with Omer Bar-Lev, the country’s left-wing public-security minister. Bar-Lev posted a positive tweet about their conversation, noting that they had discussed “settler violence and how to reduce tensions in the area.”
This did not go over well with the Israeli right—or with Bar-Lev’s own settler coalition partners. “It’s sad to see a security man of such experience and years accept such a false and distorted narrative,” the right-wing minister Matan Kahana wrote on Twitter. “The settlers in Judea and Samaria are not violent but pioneers.” This rare open feud among members of the coalition quickly escalated, and soon Prime Minister Naftali Bennett—Lapid’s partner in this shotgun marriage of an anti-Netanyahu coalition—was compelled to weigh in. Without mentioning Bar-Lev by name, he responded to him, tweeting: “Settlers in Judea and Samaria have suffered violence and terror, daily, for decades. They are a protective wall for all of us, and we must strengthen and support them, in words and deeds. There are marginal elements in every community, and they must be dealt with using all means, but we cannot generalize about an entire community.”
Bar-Lev, however, did not back down. “I understand that it is truly difficult for some of you to have a mirror held up to your face,” he tweeted yesterday, “and to understand that extremist settler violence is sweeping the world and that foreign governments are interested in the issue. I recommend that those who have this difficulty drink a glass of water. I will continue to fight Palestinian terrorism as if there is no extremist settler violence and extremist settler violence as if there is no Palestinian terrorism.”
So where does Lapid stand on the question of extremist violence? In our conversation before this controversy broke out, he made it quite clear: “It’s a stain on Israel.”
“Whoever attacks innocent people is a hooligan and a criminal and is going to be treated as such,” he said. “There’s going to be zero tolerance toward this issue. I had a long conversation with our minister of defense [Benny Gantz], who is now creating his own task force to make sure this will be stopped.” He acknowledged that no country can stop all such bad actors, but insisted that this is a priority for him.
“I refuse to discuss this as a political issue, because this flatters” the perpetrators, he said. “This is not a political stand. These are violent hooligans who are trying to give a political spin to the fact that they are just that. We’re speaking about criminals for whom ‘ideology’ and ‘politics’ is just an excuse.”
Though secular himself, Lapid was careful to distinguish these extremist acts from the Jewish religion and Israel’s religious community. “I remember once that I read an interview with Malala Yousafzai,” he recalled, “and she was asked about religious people who shot her in the head for religious reasons. And she said, ‘They were not shooting at me for religious reasons. These were people who wanted to shoot other people and used religion as an excuse.’ This is the same. These are criminals and should be treated as such. There should be zero tolerance toward them and there will be zero tolerance toward them from the Israeli government.”
He ended by noting that “this is something I’m not just saying in English; I said this in Hebrew in a press conference a couple of weeks ago.”
This controversy goes to the heart of the current Israeli coalition’s contradictions—and may foretell its fate. Although this unlikely alliance of unlike parties was able to pull Israeli democracy back from the brink following Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption scandals, and successfully passed the country’s first budget in three and a half years, it’s an open question whether it has the ability to govern on more contentious issues. The parties came together in opposition to Netanyahu, but the government sometimes seems united by little else.
The issue of settler violence has pitted Lapid, Gantz, and the government’s left-wing and Arab parties against its right-wing and settler flanks. Is this split a harbinger of an inevitable crack-up, or an exception that will soon be resolved?
Whether the government survives long enough to give Lapid his turn in the prime minister’s chair may hinge on the answer.