One week ago, Yair Lapid addressed the United Nations General Assembly for the first time as the prime minister of Israel. He spoke for 23 minutes and covered a range of issues, including regional normalization, the threats that Israel faces from Iran, antisemitism, and the challenge of Gaza. Included in those 23 minutes were the following three sentences: “An agreement with the Palestinians, based on two states for two peoples, is the right thing for Israel’s security, for Israel’s economy, and for the future of our children…Despite all the obstacles, still today a large majority of Israelis support the vision of this two-state solution. I am one of them.”

Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 22, 2022

In the hours after Lapid’s U.N. speech, media coverage in Israel focused on his rhetorical embrace of two states above and beyond anything else he said. Even before Lapid uttered those sentences, he came under a hailstorm of criticism back home, both from members of the opposition and members of his coalition. The criticism from Lapid’s right was that he is naïve to believe that two states is advisable, that he is endangering Israel and rewarding terrorism by putting the Palestinian issue back on the global agenda after Binyamin Netanyahu’s allegedly successful efforts to sideline it, and that the era of two states is over. The criticism from Lapid’s left was that he is merely mouthing empty platitudes without taking any tangible steps to bring two states to fruition, and that without ending the occupation or reentering negotiations with the Palestinians immediately, the era of two states will soon be over. With the exceptions of Labor, Meretz, and his colleagues in Yesh Atid, nobody seemed to be happy with Lapid, and those who want to see Israel take more drastic action dismissed what he said as having little impact on the future direction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It should go without saying that words can only go so far. Without actual steps to reduce Israel’s footprint and lessen its occupation in Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, preserve the territorial viability of a future Palestinian state, ensure a baseline of security for Israelis in any separation from the Palestinians, and work with the Palestinians to give them a clear political horizon and not only an economic one, any Israeli prime minister can talk about two states until the end of time and it won’t resolve the situation. But it is a mistake to dismiss Lapid’s words as irrelevant and as an easily identified ruse or misdirection. There are at least three good reasons why what Lapid says matters and why he deserves real credit for his U.N. speech.

Ramallah, West Bank by Catholic Church of England and Wales, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 (License linked to image)

First, Lapid’s rhetoric shapes the conversation in Israel and the way that Israelis think about the future of their relationship with the Palestinians. Even in this era of polarized and siloed journalism and social media domination, the words of a country’s leader filter through and set the agenda. Israelis have spent years hearing their prime minister either refuse to say the words “two states” or outright oppose a two-state outcome as dangerous and declare it categorically off the table. That influences whether they think that two states is advisable, possible, or in Israel’s basic interests, and while it is not the only variable at work, it is reflected in polls over the past decade that consistently show a steady decrease in the number of Israelis supporting two states and believing that such an outcome is achievable. Quite simply, a prime minister who takes the opposite tack and reminds Israelis that a two-state outcome is a core Israeli interest will impact Israelis’ views irrespective of whether policy in the short term follows or remains static. The key to moving Israeli policy in the long term lies with creating a critical mass of voters who want to see a two-state agenda implemented, and that has to start with political leadership that shapes opinion. Lapid’s U.N. speech was that start.

Second, Lapid said what he said despite operating in a political environment in which supporting two states costs more votes than it gains, and he did it less than six weeks before an election. While it may help him when it comes to putting a potential coalition together if it clears the way for Arab parties—particularly Hadash-Ta’al—to recommend him for prime minister and support a government from within or without, that support might also be canceled out on the other side if it makes it harder for the New Hope component of the National Unity Party to join a government. It also highlighted the real divisions within his potential coalition ahead of the election, as Gideon Sa’ar and Avigdor Liberman criticized Lapid without hesitation, which was juxtaposed with the unwavering unanimity in opposition to two states on the other side of the political divide. It is hard to make the case that raising this issue is a macro political winner for Lapid, even if there are some micro benefits (including sowing chaos in Benny Gantz’s backyard and reminding people why Lapid rather than Gantz is the more serious candidate for prime minister), yet Lapid raised it anyway. Following four elections where two states was almost entirely absent from the campaigns’ agendas and voters’ radars, Lapid placed it front and center as a campaign issue. This suggests that Lapid genuinely believes in two states and its importance as a core Israeli interest, and also suggests a political bravery that is uncommon these days. Both of those make Lapid’s speech deserving of praise, even if the ultimate proof will be in the pudding.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz by Lisa Ferdinando / U.S. Secretary of Defense, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 (License linked to image)

Lastly, Lapid’s words will act as a signal for other actors to elevate two states as a renewed priority. While Jordan to a large extent and Egypt to a lesser extent keep the two-state issue front and center, the Abraham Accords states generally prefer to focus on their bilateral relationships with Israel without diving too deeply into Israeli-Palestinian issues beyond the margins. The Biden administration consistently talks about two states, but has also not wanted to push the Israeli government—whether it was headed by Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett, or Lapid—too hard on political steps and spark a high-profile argument when it was clear that Israeli leaders were not at all interested or inclined to do anything. An Israeli prime minister who not only does not avoid the issue but raises it on his own initiative will have downstream effects on outside actors; this acknowledgment will tacitly encourage them to be more involved as well by smoothing the path toward initiatives both large and small pertaining to two states that will not be met with immediate resistance. The Emiratis and Bahrainis are not going to insert themselves on this issue without some public indication from Israel that two states is not a dead letter, which is why Lapid’s words at the U.N.—coming after similar sentiments from President Biden, King Abdullah, and others—matter.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington, D.C., October 2021

Lapid is not about to sit down for negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas, the U.S. is not about to appoint a peace envoy to engage in shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Ramallah, and no international peace conference is about to be convened. Israelis and Palestinians have a giant hole out of which to climb and they are close to rock bottom. But dismissing Lapid’s embrace of two states as irrelevant misses the impact it will begin to have, and he should be commended without cynicism and without assuming that his words were an empty public relations stunt. Anyone who wants to see a two-state outcome should be encouraged by Lapid and view this as an early step in a long journey.

President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the U.N. General Assembly in September 2015 by United Nations Photo, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 (License linked to image)