Lapid speaks – is anyone listening?

Prime Minister Yair Lapid/ GPO

by Edmund Owen

It is not usual for the prime minister of Israel to speak directly to the Palestinian people, but Yair Lapid did exactly that on Monday evening, August 8.  With Operation Breaking Dawn well and truly concluded, thanks to the sterling efforts of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in brokering a ceasefire, prime minister Lapid issued a statement about the operation.  Having emphasized Israel’s efforts to minimize harm inflicted on civilians, and deploring all civilian deaths especially those of children, Lapid changed direction and addressed himself to the people of Gaza.  This message he repeated in a video which he posted on Facebook.

“I want to speak directly to the residents of the Gaza Strip,” he said, “and tell them: There is another way. We know how to protect ourselves from anyone who threatens us, but we also know how to provide employment, a livelihood and a life of dignity to those who wish to live by our side in peace.  There is another way to live. The way of the Abraham Accords, of the Negev Summit, of innovation and prosperity, of regional development and joint projects. The choice is yours. Your future is in your hands.”

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The presentation of his message may have been dramatic and unusual, but the content was not. It was entirely in line with the vision for a long-term settlement between Israel and the Gaza Strip that, as Israel’s foreign minister, he set out on September 12, 2021.

He was addressing a conference of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University, a private university situated in Herzliya.  Dubbing his plan “economy for security”, he was essentially proposing a pragmatic deal – the reconstruction of Gaza in exchange for the disarmament of Palestinian armed factions.

“Since Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005,” said Lapid, “we have been dragged into round after round of violence causing suffering for our people and harming our economy. The policy Israel has pursued up until now hasn’t substantially changed the situation. The closures haven’t stopped the smuggling and production of weapons. Last night we once again struck Gaza after yet another rocket was fired, and residents ran to their shelters. We need to change direction. What should we do? The short answer is that we need to start a large, multi-year process of economy for security. It is the more realistic version of what in the past was called ‘rehabilitation for demilitarization.’”

Lapid explained that his plan encompasses two stages. The first will address the immediate humanitarian crisis in Gaza, tackling basic human needs there.

 “The electricity system will be repaired, gas will be connected, a water desalination plant will be built, significant improvements to the health-care system and a rebuilding of housing and transport infrastructure will take place. In exchange, Hamas will commit to long-term quiet.”

The second stage includes a comprehensive economic jump-start for the Gaza Strip. Lapid proposed that “as part of the second stage the artificial island project off the coast of Gaza will be advanced, which will allow for the construction of a port. A transportation link between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank will be built. International investment inside Gaza and joint economic projects with Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority [PA] will be advanced. Industrial and employment zones will be built near the Erez border crossing.”

Lapid’s proposed way forward was not to attempt negotiating any of this directly with Hamas, but to gain international consensus on the plan, and then the support of a group of like-minded nations in persuading Hamas into accepting it.  Finally he added the message that he has now put directly to the Gazan population – that he hoped Gazans understood what they were missing out on as a result of terrorism, and that they realized how much they stood to gain if terrorism was ended.

Lapid emphasized that a plan like this had never before been presented officially by an Israeli government. It seemed clear from the earnestness with which he spoke, and the degree of detail he set out, that Gaza reconstruction was to feature in future Israeli regional policy.  Indeed, Lapid indicated that the process of implementing the policy had already started.  He revealed that in recent weeks he had held a series of conversations with partners in the Arab world and the West about his plan.

The reactions of Hamas and of the Palestinian Authority (PA) were entirely negative, but for different reasons.  Hamas viewed Lapid’s plan as a bribe aimed at buying off the support of Gazans for the “armed struggle”.

            “The enemy has resorted to various proposals in order to weaken the resistance,” said Hamas spokesperson Hazim Qasim. “Its resort to such a plan indicates its inability to deal with the resistance and our Palestinian people.”

            And yet there are some who believe that Hamas’s decision not to involve itself in the conflict between Islamic Jihad and Israel was precisely because of Israel’s recent policy of economic incentives for Gaza, including a substantial increase in the number of permits allowing Gazans to cross into Israel for work.

As for the PA, Lapid’s plan would see them take charge of implementing Gazan reconstruction on the ground. The PA, for whom the idea of cooperating with their regional rivals Hamas was, perhaps, a non-starter, saw the whole Lapid policy as an effort to bypass peace negotiations leading to a comprehensive resolution of the Israel-Palestinian dispute.

Speaking to the Palestinian cabinet, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh rejected the Lapid plan as half-baked.  He believed that the reconstruction of Gaza could only follow a full-scale peace accord. “Gaza’s problem is political,” he said. “There must be a serious political process based in international law, to end the occupation and lift the blockade… this would make the reconstruction of Gaza possible and sustainable.”

It was precisely this negative, blinkered, non-aspirational attitude of the Palestinian leadership that induced Lapid to address the Gazan people direct, and to pin his hopes on assembling sufficient international support to see his proactive plans for a reconstructed and thriving Gaza Strip made reality.

The author is the Middle East expert