Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu .
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
For more than seven years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proved to be a sagacious leader.
During an exceedingly turbulent period in the Middle East, Netanyahu has managed to keep Israel safe. On each border there has been upheaval. Egypt underwent an Islamic revolution and a reactionary return to a military junta; Syria has been torn apart by a civil war that has involved Hezbollah, Iran, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Jordan has been threatened by IS forces and an influx of Syrian refugees, as well as by one of the severest economic recessions of its history. All along, the hegemony of Iran, Israel’s archenemy, has strengthened in the region. And yet, Israel has remained a relative oasis of stability, thanks in large part to the responsible leadership of Netanyahu.
One area where he has been less successful has been in making progress in achieving an accommodation that will separate Israelis and Palestinians.
Now, with his arrival in Washington to meet with President Donald Trump on Wednesday, Netanyahu will have to choose a path, as he faces another major challenge that can radically change the conceptual framework of Israel’s future on the West Bank and impact US-Israel relations for years to come.
Right-wing members of the government coalition, including key ministers in his Likud Party, are applying pressure to Netanyahu to publicly repudiate the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely put it during a speech at a conference advocating the annexation of Judea and Samaria, “your political base requires sovereignty.”
Hotovely was hardly a lone voice. Few ministers within the Likud besides Yuval Steinitz and Tzachi Hanegbi have come out in support of Netanyahu’s stance, first articulated in his 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech in favor of a two-state solution.
Initial signs indicate that Netanyahu has no intention of falling into the trap of giving up on the idea of some form of Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank.
“I understand there is a lot of excitement ahead of this meeting and there are many motivations behind this,” Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.
“I have only one motivation – first and foremost to take care of Israel’s security, to strengthen its alliance with the US and to shore up our national interests, which are intimately linked with a strong bond to the US... This requires responsible policy, this requires discrete judgment and this is how I am going to operate.”
Reneging on the idea of a two-state solution now would be a grave mistake. First, it lacks the support of a majority of Israelis. Most Israelis still believe that failing to separate ourselves from the Palestinians threatens the future of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Second, publicly repudiating the two-solution would turn support of Israel into a partisan issue in Washington. While it might be true that the Republican Party under Trump’s leadership has removed support for a Palestinian state from its platform, the Democratic Party has not.
The Trump administration might be willing to go along with an Israeli government that rejects the creation of a Palestinian state, but relations between Israel and the US have always been based on a broader consensus that transcends narrow party politics. The day will come – either in four years or in eight years – when the Trump administration’s stint in the White House will come to an end.
Israel cannot afford to be overly identified with the Trump administration, which is shaping up to be one of the most divisive in American history. Nor can Israel rely on the administration to remain committed to its support for the Israeli settlement project. The new president has shown his capacity for fickleness, whether it’s his waffling on moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem or his recent statements saying settlement construction is unhelpful to peace.
Adopting a policy that repudiates a two-state solution would strengthen Netanyahu’s position within the Likud and neutralize competition from the Right. But as prime minister, Netanyahu has a moral obligation to rise above partisan politics, to serve as the leader of the entire nation and to stem the trend of Israel becoming a partisan issue in the US.