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Is Lapid’s next job giving him a boost to his current one?

CM 26/08/2021 4

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POLITICS – While the Delta variant led to a coronavirus surge earlier this month and various government bodies met day after day trying to get matters under control, one senior member of the government was noticeably absent from those meetings: Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
Rather than getting into the nitty-gritty details about who should get a third booster shot and what to do about the opening of the school year, Lapid was flying to Morocco for diplomatic meetings and challenging the Poles over their controversial property restitution law. In other words, the foreign minister was engaged in activities that foreign ministers are, well, expected to engage in.
But Lapid is not just any other foreign minister. Because his Yesh Atid party has the largest number of seats (17) of any party in the coalition, and because he is slated to take over from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in two years, he is arguably the most powerful man in the government – more so even than Bennett. As such, Lapid’s input on domestic issues – from the budget to the coronavirus – is both expected and necessary.

After the media picked up that Lapid was a no-show at coronavirus cabinet meetings, the foreign minister did something rarely seen by politicians in these parts: admitted a mistake.
“The prime minister focused more on the pandemic, I focused more on passing the budget and maintaining the coalition,” he said in a television interview. “It could be I missed the moment that I needed to get involved more.”
The fact that Lapid is such a linchpin of this coalition, that he is critical in keeping the coalition together, is not lost on his interlocutors overseas. Even more so, said a senior official in the Foreign Ministry, he is one of the most powerful foreign ministers the country has had for years because he is slated to become the prime minister in two years.
Yair Lapid touching down in Morocco (credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM STILLS AND OZ AVITAL VIDEO)Yair Lapid touching down in Morocco (credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM STILLS AND OZ AVITAL VIDEO)
Leaders and politicians overseas, the official said, are taking him very seriously, knowing that not only does he have the ear of the prime minister, but that he himself will be the prime minister very soon. That gives him a degree of stature few of his predecessors ever enjoyed.
If there was a sense abroad when Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister that the Foreign Ministry could be bypassed in favor of going straight to the Prime Minister’s Office, where the decisions on security and diplomatic issues were made, now the feeling is that Lapid is a powerful player in his own right, and that he cannot be ignored as was the case with his predecessor, Gabi Ashkenazi.
Netanyahu kept Ashkenazi out of the loop in the short period in 2020-2021 when Ashkenazi was foreign minister, and did not give Israel Katz any real authority when he was the country’s top diplomat in 2019-2020. Lapid, by contrast, is in the middle of the loop.
THE QUESTION is what impact a much stronger foreign minister has had on the ministry, a ministry whose morale reached new lows during the Netanyahu premiership as it was continuously sidelined, its budgets cut and large chunks of its authority sliced away and parceled out to other ministries.
When Lapid took over in June, he vowed to change all that, promising both to recoup lost authority by, for instance, reincorporating into the Foreign Ministry tasks that had been taken away and given to the Strategic Affairs Ministry, and by increasing the ministry’s budget.
During the first few weeks, ministry officials said, there was a palpable change in mood. Lapid, blessed with people-to-people skills that one ministry official said Ashkenazi lacked, went from department to department, meeting the people and giving them the sense that they and the ministry matter to him.
Nearly three months into his tenure, however, opinions are split – as will inevitably be the case in an office with hundreds of workers – as to whether the honeymoon is over.
One source said that Lapid generated a great deal of expectation and hope inside the ministry following the lean years under Netanyahu, and that Lapid helped bolster these feelings by renewing the appointment of veteran diplomat Alon Ushpiz – selected a year earlier by Ashkenazi – as the ministry’s director-general.
But, the source said, certain developments have since soured the atmosphere.
The first was a series of political appointments to plum jobs abroad. While Lapid moved quickly to fill vacant posts in diplomatic delegations that had been left empty for months, this also included appointing Yesh Atid Party faithful to choice positions: Yael German as ambassador to Paris, Ronen Hoffman as ambassador to Canada, and Asaf Zamir as consul-general in New York.
Lapid also filled the ambassadorial post in the United Arab Emirates with Amir Hayek, head of the Israel Hotel Association, sending him to replace veteran diplomat Eitan Na’eh, who was appointed on a temporary basis last year and had received high marks for his work there. Another former Yesh Atid MK, Shimon Solomon, was chosen as ambassador to Angola.
In the realm of policy, the source said that the way Lapid handled the Poland Property Restitution Law issue raised eyebrows inside the ministry. After the controversial law was passed, Lapid pretty much declared diplomatic war on Poland, calling back to Israel for consultation its chargé d’affaires in Warsaw, declaring that its newly appointed ambassador to Poland will not be dispatched, and recommending to Poland that its ambassador not return to Israel from his holiday.
Though the ministry is adamantly against the law, questions were raised about the way Lapid went about dealing with it. Poland – now the fifth most populous state in the EU with a robust presence in international forums and delegations abroad – is not an insignificant EU country. In the past it has given Israel a degree of diplomatic cover; it is not a country that Israel needs to feud with.
“What was Lapid trying to accomplish?” one source said. “You want to cut off ties? Okay, but what are the objectives, what is the exit strategy? If he wanted to stop the law, he failed. If he hoped to get sanctions against Poland from the US, he also failed.”
Diplomacy is the tool for achieving goals through persuasion, negotiation and conversation, the source continued. “What was accomplished here?”
The source also charged that Lapid drafted his response without adequately consulting the top echelons of his ministry.
According to this source, it is too early to tell whether the Foreign Ministry has more of a say today than it did during the Netanyahu years in the country’s main policy-shaping forums.
The source noted, however, that unlike in the recent past, the ministry does not have any high-level representative in the Prime Minister’s Office.
For instance, Netanyahu’s top foreign policy aid in the National Security Council was Reuven Azar, a veteran diplomat who has since returned to the ministry. Bennett’s top foreign policy adviser is former journalist Shimrit Meir, who the source said may have a wide breadth of knowledge about the region, but has no diplomatic experience.
Ehud Olmert had Shalom Turgeman as a top adviser, and Ariel Sharon had Danny Ayalon – all with roots in the ministry. Moreover, for many years Netanyahu’s spokesman was Mark Regev, who also came from the Foreign Ministry.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks, August 2 2021 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks, August 2 2021 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
These discordant chords, however, are not the only ones being heard inside the ministry. One senior official chafed at the idea that Lapid’s honeymoon is over, saying that the morale inside the ministry is still considerably higher as a result of Lapid taking over, and he cited two main reasons.
“First, he is a mensch. He talks to the employees, takes their opinions into account. This is something that is very obvious.
“Secondly, he has great potential because he is the strongest person in the coalition, and his position allows him to build himself up as a statesman – it is important for him that the ministry will be dominant.
This, the official said, will be translated into what is expected to be a significant increase in the ministry’s budget.
“We don’t yet have all the numbers, but it is expected to be a bigger budget than we have had for many years,” he said.
The official took issue with those saying that Lapid acted unilaterally on Poland, saying that numerous meetings on the matter were held inside the ministry. Not everyone agreed with his position, but that is always the case, he said.
The official also noted that every minister makes political appointments, and that they always cause resentment and frustration inside the ministry. But on both issues – Poland and the appointments – the official said it is clear that Lapid did not go beyond his authority,
The official further said that because other government ministers are coordinating and cooperating, there is much more cooperation than in the recent past between the Foreign Ministry and various other ministries – such as the Health, Intelligence and Regional Cooperation ministries.
When the ministers cooperate, this spirit of cooperation trickles down to the ministries, he said, adding that he would not yet place the Defense Ministry in this equation.
The Defense Ministry is the Foreign Ministry’s chief rival when it comes to impacting policy, and it has always had the upper hand in setting the country’s foreign policy. As such, even with Lapid’s strength inside the government, it will take much longer than two-and-a-half months to move a fundamental pillar of this country’s political culture.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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