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In his first speech as Prime Minister, Lapid urged unity in the face of “violent and vicious” policies

Yair Lapid delivered his first televised address as prime minister on Saturday night, denouncing the “extreme, violent and vicious” discourse in Israeli politics and urging unity and respectful public debate ahead of the country’s fifth election in three and a half years.

Speaking from the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, Lapid said Israel seeks peace with the Palestinians but will take firm action against anyone who “seeks our demise,” particularly by thwarting Iran’s nuclear program.

Lapid, who replaced Naftali Bennett on Friday and became Israel’s 14th prime minister after the dissolution of the Knesset, is acting in a transitional capacity until a new government is formed after the Nov. 1 election, though that vote could potentially stall again and be extended for years country’s political stalemate.

“The State of Israel is bigger than all of us. More important than any of us. It was here before us and will be here long after us,” he said Saturday, adding, “We must choose for the common good; what connects us. There will always be disagreements, the question is how do we handle them and how do we make sure they don’t handle us.”

“The big Israeli question is actually why at a time when we have broad national agreement on all major issues, is the level of hatred and fear so high in Israeli society? Why is polarization more threatening than ever?” he continued.

“The answer is – politics. In Israel, extremism does not enter politics from the streets. It is the opposite. It flows like lava from politics to the streets. The political sphere has become ever more extreme, violent and vicious, dragging Israeli society with it. We have to stop that. That is our challenge.”

Lapid Speech, full text: We must stop the flow of extremism from politics to the streets

That was an obvious reference to the rhetoric of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has waged a scathing campaign against the ideologically diverse government that ousted him from power a year ago, focusing in particular on the willingness of Lapid and Bennett to form a coalition to form with the Islamists Ra’am Party.

Lapid opened his speech by thanking his predecessor Bennett – with whom he had signed a power-sharing deal for leadership rotation – for the “orderly transfer of power.”

“First of all, I would like to thank the 13th Prime Minister of the State of Israel, Naftali Bennett. For your decency, for your friendship and for leading the government to economic and security gains over the past year that haven’t been seen here for years,” he said, adding: “A special thank you for supporting the Citizens of Israel have brought an orderly transition this week, people who honor agreements and believe in each other.”

It was a blow to Netanyahu, who broke a 2020 power rotation agreement with Benny Gantz and held only a brief, 30-minute transitional meeting with new Prime Minister Bennett last year.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett briefs his successor Yair Lapid in Prime Minister’s Office, June 30, 2022 (Haim Zach / GPO)

Lapid laid out what he believed the common goal of Israelis should be: “A Jewish, democratic, liberal, big, strong, progressive, and prosperous Israel.”

“We believe that Israel must be a liberal democracy, where every citizen has the right to change government and choose the course of their life. No one can be denied their basic rights: respect, liberty, freedom to work and the right to personal security,” he said.

“We believe that Israel is a Jewish state,” he added. “His character is Jewish. His identity is Jewish. Relations with its non-Jewish citizens are also Jewish. The book of Leviticus says, ‘But the stranger who dwells with you shall be to you as one born under you, and you shall love him as yourself.’”

“We believe that the Israeli economy must be based on free market principles, on the creativity and dynamism of Israeli technology, and that our job is to protect those who have nothing. Giving every child, everywhere, a fair chance.”

In a completely different stance from Netanyahu on the peace talks with the Palestinians, Lapid said: “We believe that Israel is a country that seeks peace as long as Israel’s security needs are met. Israel reaches out to all the peoples of the Middle East, including the Palestinians, and says: It’s time you realized that we will never move from here, let’s learn to live together.”

Referring to normalization deals with Arab countries signed by Netanyahu’s previous government – and hinting at possible similar deals in the future – Lapid said: “We believe that the Abraham Accords are a great boon, a great boon in security and economic Momentum created in the Negev Summits with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Morocco and that the agreements yet to come will be a great boon.”

Such a deal is reportedly in the works with Saudi Arabia, with US President Joe Biden set to visit both countries later this month.

Lapid paid tribute to “our greatest friend and ally, the United States,” and vowed to engage the international community in “the fight against anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel.”

Lapid said Israel’s greatest threat is Iran, and pledged, “We will do everything we can to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities or entrenching on our borders.”

“I say to all who seek our downfall, from Gaza to Tehran, from the shores of Lebanon to Syria, don’t try us. Israel knows how to use its strength against any threat, against any enemy,” he warned.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the Knesset ahead of a vote to dissolve parliament on June 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s Likud party issued a response criticizing Lapid’s speech, saying he failed to address the “insane” price spike over the past year and alleging he was trying “to hide the fact that the only government he has which is the Muslim Brotherhood and the Common List.” The predominantly Arab Common List party has never been in an Israeli coalition government.

“It was announced on Friday that he had sent his chief of staff, Naama Schultz, to the [Islamic Movement’s] Shura Council under open scrutiny,” read the Likud statement, referring to comments made by a former diplomatic adviser to Bennett regarding the Muslim body to which the Ra’am party belongs.

“Such a government is a real threat to Israel’s security,” Likud said. “The choice is a blackmailed Lapid government that includes the Muslim Brotherhood and the Joint List, or a strong national government led by Netanyahu and the Likud that will restore hope to Israel.”

The Likud also criticized Lapid for failing to mention that the Abraham Accords were signed under Netanyahu’s government, arguing that Lapid has maintained “deafening silence” over the past year about the Iranian threat, and claiming that Lapid’s own rhetoric and actions have been divisive be.