Yair Lapid will become prime minister of Israel tonight, now that the Knesset has officially voted to dissolve and head to new elections. What Lapid will do now that he has achieved his decade-long goal of ascending to the top of Israel’s government is up for debate, and he will undoubtedly be influenced not only by policy preferences but by political considerations in light of the fact that he must successfully form a new coalition in four months if he wants to eliminate the interim nature of his new role. Whether he takes the opportunity or not, Lapid will have an opening to implement a vision he has spoken about for years, and to contrast his vision with that of his most potent challenger, namely former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Lapid and Netanyahu both made Israel’s role in the Middle East and how it relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict central to their foreign policy rhetoric even before the normalization process came to fruition with the Abraham Accords, but they approach the issue with very different conclusions for what normalization means for Israel and its interests.

The steering committee meeting of the Negev Forum held this week in Bahrain, attended by the six countries that came together for the Negev Summit in March—U.S., Israel, Egypt, UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco—was a victory for Lapid in light of his role in creating the forum and organizing the historic Sde Boker meeting that kicked things off. But it should also be seen as a victory for Netanyahu, who has been talking in a very specific way about Israel’s acceptance in the region for decades. Contrary to the dominant paradigm insisting Israel would only be able to establish normalized relations with Arab states after it came to a peace agreement with the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s core idea was that Israel would be able to bypass the Palestinians and achieve normalized relations with the rest of the region irrespective of any Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Netanyahu argued that Israel’s strength and success would overcome any reservations that still lingered from the height of the pan-Arab nationalist era, and that Israel’s military might, economic power, and technological leadership would create too strong an array of interests for Arab states to ignore. Netanyahu insisted that Israel was inevitably becoming more integrated into the region, just as others insisted that the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained an albatross around Israel’s neck preventing it from moving forward with other states. Netanyahu was proven right two years ago when the Abraham Accords were announced and his prediction of the inevitability of states being unable to sustain non-engagement with Israel came true.

The Negev Summit, March 2022

Lapid has also spent years—albeit not as long as Netanyahu—talking about Israel’s integration into the region, and pushing this process forward has been the hallmark of his year-long stint as foreign minister. Lapid has been most associated with the idea of an outside-in process, in which peace and normalization with Arab states come before everything else. Where Lapid departs from Netanyahu is what happens after regional normalization. For Netanyahu, normalization with Arab states that bypasses the Palestinians is the end goal. He believes that this process will not only marginalize and weaken the Palestinians, but that it will eventually render an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement irrelevant. For Netanyahu, the point of engaging with the Palestinians and attempting to get to a permanent status arrangement is because of the danger of ignoring the pressures on Israel from the region and the international community. If Israel can make these pressures disappear through making itself too valuable a partner for other states to ignore or sanction, then no reason remains to deal with the Palestinians beyond managing the conflict so that it does not get out of hand.

In contrast, Lapid truly buys into the idea of an outside-in process, where the outside comes first but the in does not go away. Lapid did not think, as the conventional wisdom dictated, that Israel would be forced to make peace with the Palestinians in order to achieve recognition from Arab states. But he does embrace the notion that once Israel has normalized relations with the rest of the region, an agreement with the Palestinians will become easier through the influence of Arab states that have relations with both sides and through what he views as a more realistic set of expectations that the Palestinians eventually embrace as a result. It remains to be seen whether this causal chain comes to fruition, but it is critical to understand the key distinction between Netanyahu and Lapid. Netanyahu does not see a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians as an Israeli interest unless outside pressure forces it onto Israel’s agenda. Lapid, on the other hand, views a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians as a core Israeli interest, and not as a favor to anyone else or a way of diverting international pressure.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the U.S. Capitol, October 2021

Lapid has said repeatedly that he does not think an agreement with the Palestinians is possible in the current environment, and I do not think that his position on that will change now that he is prime minister. The opportunity he now has is not to restart a peace process that is doomed to fail, but to emphasize to Israelis the core idea that lies at the heart of his regional vision, which is that an agreement with the Palestinians is an Israeli interest. Israelis are reticent about the possibilities of peace and a two-state arrangement for all sorts of reasons, but part of that reticence stems from the notion that it is not something that Israel needs to do and that it would be a favor to the other side. Lapid has a chance to change that narrative, and demonstrate to Israeli voters that regional normalization is a fantastic development—all the more so as Israel and Saudi Arabia inch closer together—but that it does not obviate the strong Israeli interest that remains in solving Israel’s conflict with its most immediate neighbor. Lapid’s views on this can be seen in the joint statement that emerged this week from Manama, which not only mentioned the need to improve quality of life for Palestinians and strengthen the Palestinian economy, but explicitly stated that relations between the six Negev Forum countries “can be harnessed to create momentum in Israeli-Palestinian relations, towards a negotiated resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and as part of efforts to achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.”

Former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meets with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, September 2010

The latest poll from leading Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki demonstrates just why using regional gains to wish the Palestinian issue away is a dangerous approach for Israel. Not only are the Palestinian Authority and Fatah losing major ground to Hamas, but support for two states among Palestinians dropped 12 points in three months, which is directly attributable to the almost identical 10-point rise over the same three months in Palestinians who say that two states is no longer feasible because of Israeli policies on the ground. If these trends continue, Israel will soon find itself facing a situation where a critical mass of Palestinians move over to the camp demanding a single bi-national state, a critical mass of Palestinians move over to the camp of supporting armed attacks against Israelis, or both. These numbers on their own demonstrate the folly of Netanyahu’s vision for regional normalization while emphasizing the importance of Lapid’s understanding that the Palestinians cannot be ignored and that it is in Israel’s obvious interests not to do so. For Lapid, making this basic point a centerpiece of his prime ministership and election campaign would be both responsible policymaking and an opportunity to distinguish himself from Netanyahu. Painting a clear contrast between the way each of them sees the region, Lapid should make the argument to Israelis that Israel’s strong interests dictate engaging both with the wider Middle East and with the people with whom Israelis share a narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.