Dispatch

Israel's New Kingmaker

Yair Lapid's critics have dismissed the former TV personality as vapid and uninformed. They couldn't be more wrong.

TEL AVIV — Though one of Israel's best known public figures, Yair Lapid, the surprise star of the Jan. 22 election, is a mystery abroad. He now finds himself in the unexpected position of kingmaker, free to dictate terms to a badly weakened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Lapid will likely emerge as Netanyahu's senior coalition partner, giving him significant influence over the direction of Israeli policy. There is a growing possibility that the former columnist and television anchor will be Israel's next foreign minister, putting his formidable media skills to good use as his country's top diplomat. But on policy, Lapid would enter the Foreign Ministry as something of an enigma: During the campaign, he focused largely on middle-class domestic issues such as compulsory army conscription for the ultra-Orthodox, and housing and education reform.

It would be wrong, however, to underestimate Lapid. He isn't simply a charismatic reader of teleprompters, and his worldview is far from "vapid," as some have dismissed it. Based on the available evidence, Lapid, a self-described centrist, has a definite worldview that hews closer to the left than the right. The signs are encouraging that he will be a moderating influence on the next Netanyahu government.

The first hint as to Lapid's worldview can be gleaned from the people with whom he surrounds himself. Lapid formed the Yesh Atid ("There is a Future") party less than a year ago, after which he personally handpicked the slate of candidates. Out of these 18 future parliamentarians, three can be described as holding foreign policy or security backgrounds.

Yaakov Perry, number five on the party list, is a former head of the Shin Bet, Israel's vaunted internal security agency. Perry, along with five other former Shin Bet chiefs, made headlines recently after taking part in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers, a damning indictment of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. The title alludes to the film's main thesis -- that for all of Israel's security and intelligence successes keeping the Palestinians at bay, there is no military solution to the conflict. "When you retire," Perry says in one of the film's most illuminating lines, "you become a bit of a leftist."

Number six on the party list and a close Lapid confidante is Ofer Shelah, a former military affairs commentator and sports broadcaster. Shelah is best known as a harsh critic of Israel's handling of the 2006 Lebanon War and the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead. His book Captives in Lebanon is a methodically researched denunciation of Israel's political and military echelon during the 2006 conflict; after the 2009 war, he called Israel "a crazy country" that had "adopted the ethical scale of Vladimir Putin" because of what he perceived as the needless prolongation of the campaign.

Number 19 on the Yesh Atid list, and the last to get into the next Knesset, is Ronen Hoffman, an expert on foreign policy, negotiations, and governance based out of Herzliya's Interdisciplinary Center. Hoffman is a professional who has proven himself more comfortable with the left than the right: He previously served as an aide to two Labor prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, and took part in peace negotiations with Syria in the 1990s.

The potentially most influential Lapid associate, however, doesn't appear on any official lists. Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister, has been described as Lapid's "close friend" -- although this likely doesn't do justice to the depth of their relationship.

Lapid has said more than once that the only two people at the deathbed of his father, Tommy, were himself and Olmert, Tommy's closest friend for decades. Lapid fils idolized his late father, and says openly that he still "speaks" to him during long campaign drives. During the tense election campaign, Lapid -- running on a squeaky-clean, outsider platform -- was criticized by the media for his ties to Olmert, who was recently convicted for breach of trust and still faces further corruption charges. It would have been politically useful at the time for Lapid to distance himself from Olmert, yet he refused.

Now, with the election over, it seems hard to believe that Lapid won't turn to his experienced friend for advice. And Olmert has been one of Netanyahu's shrillest critics regarding Iran and the lack of peace negotiations. "Netanyahu is unable to make important decisions," Olmert said earlier this month. "[H]e shouldn't be prime minister."

Lapid's own public statements tend to echo the worldview of his closest confidants. While his speeches on security and foreign affairs are few, he did deliver a major policy address last October in the West Bank settlement city of Ariel. Some critics have dismissed the speech because of its locale, but Lapid went to Ariel precisely to deliver hard truths to the settler community. And while it is true that Lapid explicitly refused to divide Jerusalem in any future peace deal, he also delivered a scathing critique of Israel's foreign policy under Netanyahu.

"I came here today," Lapid began, "to call for our return to the negotiating table, in order to work for a future agreement with the Palestinians." He then promised that he would not sit in any government that did not re-launch peace talks, a promise Yesh Atid has reiterated in recent days.

Lapid used the speech to position himself as clear-eyed and unsentimental on the peace process. "You don't come to negotiations only with an olive branch, the way the left does, or only with a gun, the way the right does," he said. "You come to find a solution. We're not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but for a divorce agreement we can live with."

During negotiations, Lapid said, there would be no new settlements going up, but allowances would be made for "natural growth" in existing settlements. A final status agreement on a two-state solution, for Lapid, would see Israel retaining the three large settlement blocs, an undivided Jerusalem, and the Palestinian relinquishment of the refugee's "right of return." These are consensus positions for much of the Israeli public, but based on other remarks in the Ariel speech, they could also be viewed as Lapid's opening negotiating posture.

Lapid castigated Netanyahu for "wasting" the last four years, saying that the prime minister had taken "the central problem facing the country, and [thrown] it in the laps of our children." And he painted a dismal, self-defeating picture of Israel's future if the problem was left to fester.

"Our children ... will have 6 million, 7 million Palestinians [to deal with] -- poorer, angrier, more frustrated and desperate; our children will have to deal with the next intifada; they are the ones who will have to deal with the return of terror attacks," he said. "Our children will be the ones that will have to deal with an economic crisis and growing international isolation; and our children will ultimately be the ones who return to those very same negotiations that we could be conducting right now, only on much worse terms."

Lapid rejected the prevailing notion, clung to by Netanyahu, that there was "no partner" on the Palestinian side. "These are the Palestinians, there are no others," Lapid said. "They're here and they aren't going anywhere, and the only thing that this ‘no partner' policy has done is undermine Israel's international standing and strengthened Hamas."

On Iran, Lapid played down the ability of a military strike to solve the nuclear issue, noting that while the option should remain on the table as a last resort, Israel's security chiefs were all in agreement that it would only delay the Iranian program. The goal, he said, should be the fall of the Iranian regime, through "choking sanctions." The mistake, he said, was in thinking that Israel "had to solve the problem for the world, instead of animating the world to solve the problem for us."

Whether Lapid translates the above beliefs into actual policy change remains to be seen; his first test will arrive in a few days, when the coalition negotiations begin in earnest. But there is little doubt that Lapid holds a starkly different worldview than Netanyahu -- less suspicious, more optimistic, and above all, internationalist.

Near the end of his speech, Lapid quoted John F. Kennedy: "Let us never negotiate out of fear but let us never fear to negotiate."

"I stand here, in Ariel," Lapid concluded, echoing a certain other U.S. president, "to say to the citizens of Israel: We need to stop letting fear dictate our lives, and start the journey toward hope."

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Dispatch

Saving Syrians, One Blanket at a Time

How I became a one-man aid worker in the world's deadliest war zone.

KILIS, Turkey — I am a 21-year-old, independent aid worker. I don't work for any country or NGO, but for Syrian civilians.

The project I started isn't just about bringing help, it's about bringing hope. The idea started small and simple: I wanted to take blankets to refugees. Before I knew what I was getting into, it had grown big and complex: I've just come back from Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, where I delivered my second batch of aid -- 500 blankets.

It all started when I finished a university exchange in South Korea and decided to travel back home to the Netherlands overland. After crossing Russia from east to west and north to south, in early October I ended up in Antakya, a Turkish city near the Syrian border that is teeming with refugees.

It was here that I met Ali, a refugee from Aleppo. Ali was very excited when I told him I came from the Netherlands -- some years ago, his son made a Dutch friend in Aleppo. When this Dutch guy heard that his friend's family had escaped the war-torn city, he decided to come down to Antakya to meet his Syrian friend once more. He met the family, except for the person he was looking for. Ali's son had died while fleeing due to regime shelling.

I listened to his story, horrified. I had no idea what to say. Ali kept the conversation going by explaining how difficult life was now for innocent civilians caught up in a deadly mix of violence, cold, hunger, and uncertainty. I tried to keep travelling, but his story haunted me. I wanted to do something to help.

Reading up about the humanitarian situation in Syria, I was struck by how much aid was needed. It seemed that hardly any of the big NGOs were bringing aid inside the country. So far, countries have given less than 4 percent of the funds that the United Nations said is necessary to implement its aid program in Syria.

I decided to visit Bab al-Salam, a makeshift camp situated just a few hundred feet into Syria, across the Turkish border. The camp hosted perhaps 4,000 Syrians, living in miserable conditions.

I was greeted at the border by a teenager in a camouflage outfit. He held a gun -- the first time I'd seen such a weapon, aside from computer games. I was given a Free Syria entry stamp in my passport and told: "Welcome to Free Syria." Before I knew it, I was speaking with the management of the camp.

We drank sweet tea and they asked me what I came for. I explained that I wanted to help, and offered them 100 blankets bought from my own savings. My only requirement was to hand out the blankets myself -- there were stories floating around about aid disappearing or being sold for weapons. 

The manager and his friends burst out laughing. "We need 4,000 blankets", he said, "100 is pointless!"

I was disappointed, but I quickly regained my confidence upon returning to Kilis, the Turkish border village where I now live. I decided to buy the blankets; I knew I could find a way to get them to people in need.

In early November, after a few weeks of trying to get in to Syria, magic happened. Hassan Kwaja, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo, came to me with the biggest smile I'd ever seen and told me that his friends could take me to his hometown. They had a friend with a truck, they had done relief work in Aleppo before, and they could help me find people suffering in the cold.

The next evening I was in a place I had never thought to go to and never wanted to be. We were in Aleppo, with my 100 blankets. 

I'd never been to a conflict zone before, and I was scared to death. The cloudy sky was illuminated every 30 seconds from shelling. We had to run for cover when artillery shells came whistling over our heads, smashing down dangerously close. My heart was pounding: Had I made a stupid -- and potentially fatal -- choice by coming to Aleppo just to hand out blankets?

That night, I understood the reality of daily life for the 2 million residents of Aleppo. The conflict is inescapable and the fear is constant: fear of sending your kids to schools that are often targeted by fighter jets and shelling. Fear of illness, since the only medical help is offered at field hospitals staffed by activists with neither proper training nor proper materials. Fear of cold and darkness, driven by near constant electricity blackouts. But also fear of fragmentation and lawlessness -- fear of what comes next.

In the morning, I found a renewed sense of purpose as we loaded the blankets into a small truck and went to a neighborhood filled with displaced people. Syrians wanted the blankets badly -- they knew winter was coming. They had left everything behind and were now sharing unfurnished apartments with other families, without heating or stoves to cook on.

Syrian nights are incredibly cold. On the first trip, they were still bearable. When I returned a few days ago, even three jackets couldn't stop me shivering as temperatures hovered around freezing. Of course, most Syrians don't have such comforts: With skyrocketing prices for gas and diesel and a shortage of wood, we found a number of families burning rubber, plastic bags, and even woolen blankets to stay warm -- children were coughing from the thick black smoke of the fires.

What I saw in Aleppo made me realize more help was needed. I flew back to the Netherlands and sought publicity for my project -- after a Dutch TV station picked up the story, donations came flooding in. I bought the second batch, 500 blankets this time, and took them to those in need.

Aleppo is quieter now than a few months ago -- the shelling has decreased, and I hardly saw any fighter jets above the city on my recent trip. Most of my time was spent in a relatively peaceful neighborhood where many displaced people had found refuge. Local FSA brigades told me the area got shelled every other week with one or two shells. "No problem" they said.

But my last night, when no less than five shells came down within 20 minutes, proved just how volatile the situation is. The closest one was about 150 feet away from where I was sleeping, and left a mother dead and her two kids permanently injured. In total, four people died, and many more were wounded.

Sourcing and delivering aid involves a lot of waiting: for people, promises, cars, petrol, security. It's now the end of January -- if I were to begin the process of organizing another blanket drive, they would only be used for a short time, before the end of winter.

Syrians' needs have changed, and I am changing my shipments accordingly. After enduring six months of a brutal civil war -- which has included the shelling of bakery bread lines -- the residents of Aleppo now need food. For that reason, I decided that my next shipment of aid would be food boxes.

But what supplies should go in each box? I looked at the food boxes of some NGOs but wasn't satisfied. Aid experts all had different opinions and motives for including different products. Some experts spoke about nutrition bars. I saw boxes that were almost entirely filled with bread, while some others lacked basic ingredients I knew were used in Syrian kitchens. I figured that if I wanted to make a food box, I shouldn't look at what NGOs were doing -- what better way to discover local needs than to ask Syrian women what they would use in a regular week?

So I did. As a result, my food box will contain the ingredients normally used in a Syrian household, except for perishable goods such as yogurt and fruit. Having decided what to include, I placed the food orders yesterday. Now, all that remains is preparing the boxes and distributing them in Syria.

Working in Syria contains inherent risks -- but that doesn't make me reckless. The only images that make it to television are of the front line: tanks, MIGs, gun battles, and victims. Behind the front line, the only risk is from the bombs, shells, and missiles that fall from the sky. That's a risk you choose to take, knowing the chance is there, but that there is little you can do to avoid it -- even the most experienced war photographer or soldier cannot predict where a shell will fall. It has nothing to do with recklessness, and everything to do with eagerness to bring some help to civilians that are otherwise forgotten and ignored.

At its heart, my project is meant as a statement to the Syrian people: You have not been forgotten. A statement condemning the international community for sitting on its hands while those in Syria are left to suffer. A statement that, if a 21-year-old without experience can bring help to Syria, then the big international aid organizations should be able to do so too.

I know that I'm just bringing my blankets and my food boxes -- and far from enough. But with each small shipment, I'm also bringing hope: Hope for a better future; hope that the plight of Syrian refugees will not feel forgotten. It might be small, but at least I'm doing something.

ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS/AFP/Getty Images