The best political speech in many years was not delivered. Instead, incoming Israeli Foreign Minister
set it aside and reprimanded members of
departing coalition for their nonstop heckling of incoming Prime Minister
which was outrageous even by the standards of the Knesset. Several members were hauled out of the parliament’s chambers. The brief handshake between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Bennett as the new prime minister strode to the rostrum was a small green shoot of mutual recognition in the stony soil of recrimination.
Although Mr. Lapid’s speech was not heard, it should be read—and remembered. Citing the Book of Judges, Mr. Lapid began by declaring that it is time for “peace in this land.” But forging a shared future is no easy matter, because it begins with something hard: We must forgive one another for the past. “Hate is a prison,” he observes, and “forgiveness is the way out.” Otherwise, the bitterness of the past will hold us captive indefinitely.
Forgiveness is hard because those who have acquired power must take the first step. During his long years in the opposition, Mr. Lapid says, he was angry at the arbitrary and dismissive way the Netanyahu government treated those who were not part of it. It is human to seek revenge, an impulse that the new government must resist: “The solution is not to treat them the same way. The solution is to behave differently.”
Behaving differently begins by treating opponents with respect, even if they don’t immediately reciprocate. It means looking for ways to fix problems, not blame others for them. It means focusing on areas of agreement, not discord. Mr. Lapid ticked off a long list including education, healthcare, aid for small business, maintaining a strong defense and fighting government corruption. It also includes, he insisted, “civic equality for every citizen,” restating a principle enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
During his speech, Mr. Lapid addressed the challenges of diversity head-on. “The past few years have seen us all turned from people into labels—right, left, secular, Haredi, Jewish, Arab,” he said. One may question his chronology; most observers believe that this tribalism has been intensifying over several decades. Whenever this descent began, Mr. Lapid insisted that it is time to end it: “This government has been formed so that we stop being labels and revive our common identity.”
He also acknowledged concerns about the diversity of the new coalition that he more than anyone else is responsible for creating. What do the right, the left and the Islamists have in common? His answer: “This country. That is the thing that unites us. . . . None of us thinks that we love the country more than the other. None of us has ownership over patriotism.” Then come words that should be carved in marble over the entrance to the Knesset: “You cannot claim to love Israel if you hate half of the Israelis.”
Mr. Lapid’s speech deserves to be pondered, and not only in Israel. It speaks to Israelis who are sickened by the discord in their country—and to an America torn in half. Its prescriptions apply as much to Democratic and Republican leaders as to the new Israeli coalition and its right-wing opposition.
To President Biden, the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader: Use your power with magnanimity and respect. Look for common ground. Acknowledge that those with opinions very different from your own can be as patriotic as you are. To the House and Senate minority leaders: Accept with grace the peaceful transition of power. Seek to minimize divisions among the people, not use them for partisan purposes.
The only way to succeed, Mr. Lapid insisted, is to work together. “The cynics will mock—they always do—but cynics have never created anything.” Indeed they have not. Still, there is no guarantee that reconciliation, however sincerely sought, can be achieved.
An Israeli friend of mine remarked that Mr. Lapid’s speech reminded him of the Gettysburg Address. No, I replied, it is more like President Lincoln’s First Inaugural. “We are not enemies,” Mr. Lapid insists, and even the most strident opinions and heated arguments “will not turn us into enemies.” This echoes Lincoln, who, after taking the oath of office, declared: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Like Mr. Lapid, Mr. Lincoln appealed to a shared patriotism and, famously, to the “better angels of our nature.”
Everyone knows what happened next. May this awful history not be repeated, not in Israel, not in the U.S., not in any society divided so deeply that some citizens see violence as preferable to compromise and the rule of law.
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