Washington Watch: Netanyahu retreats on Palestinian state

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tries hard to be all things to all people.

March 11, 2015 21:33
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a news conference at his office in Jerusalem

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a news conference at his office in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tries hard to be all things to all people. He’s a tough-talking but risk averse strongman who threatens to attack Iran’s nuclear sites but tries to bully the United States into doing it for him. He says he is grateful for US President Barack Obama’s support and in the next breath bites the hand that feeds him. He talks about making peace with the Palestinians but finds endless excuses to avoid it.

Those traits were on display this weekend as questions arose about his commitment to the two-state approach to peace. In the six years since he first seemed to endorse the concept in a speech at Bar-Ilan University, his position has gone from “yes, but” to “hell, no” with a few stops in between.

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Two things happened last Friday to focus new attention on the issue. Nahum Barnea reported in Yediot Aharonot that in secret talks in London in August 2013, Netanyahu’s envoy and personal lawyer, Yitzhak Molcho, indicated a willingness to withdraw to the 1967 borders with some land swaps, to recognize a limited right of return for Palestinian refugees and make major concessions regarding Jerusalem.

The prime minister’s office at first denied any knowledge of the document, then called it a forgery and finally said it was an American proposal never agreed to.

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Turns out they did know about the proposal. Amb. Dennis Ross, the longtime US negotiator, said he’s the author and it came out of talks he participated in with Molcho and representatives of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and that no formal agreement was reached. Netanyahu’s supporters suggested to reporters the leaked document was a White House conspiracy to undermine the prime minister with his settler/nationalist base.

The second matter was a newsletter distributed by Netanyahu’s Likud Party at synagogues Friday night saying the Bar-Ilan endorsement of two states has been “annulled” and “Netanyahu’s entire political biography is the struggle against the establishment of the Palestinian state.”

Did he or didn’t he change positions? Netanyahu’s office let the story percolate over the weekend before issuing a non-denial denial. The Likud newsletter was written by Knesset member Tzipi Hotovely, an advocate of annexing the West Bank, and she was speaking for herself.

So Netanyahu does support a two-state solution? Not really. Last month he wrote on his Facebook page: “I’m against giving up Judea and Samaria because all that space will become a terrorist base of radical Islam.” Earlier he told a campaign rally “each piece of land from which we withdraw... would be taken over by radical Islam.”

This week he said Palestinian statehood is “simply not relevant” for the indefinite future because “any land that is handed over would be grabbed by Islamist extremists.” In other words, fuhgeddaboudit. “There will be no withdrawals” and “no concessions” to the Palestinians, Netanyahu said Sunday.

The subject of peace never came up in last week’s congressional speech. Not one word. It was all about Iran. That was very different from his 2011 address from the same platform. “We will be very generous on the size of a future Palestinian state,” he declared then.

He was bluffing. Starting with his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, Netanyahu has put so many conditions on statehood that his yes really means no. And in those six years he has done nothing to advance the idea.

He avoids committing to discuss the 1967 lines as a reference point for permanent borders, rules out any division of Jerusalem, demands Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state and insists on indefinite Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley. Meanwhile he continues taking Palestinian land for expanding settlements or building roads and bypasses to keep Jews and Arabs apart in the West Bank – creating what critics say is the infrastructure for an apartheid system based on occupied territory.

What does he really want? The status quo. But the Palestinians won’t accept that and neither will the Americans and the Europeans, who intend to press the next government to revive peace talks with the Palestinians.

The next prime minister has to worry more about the Europeans than the Americans. Not only are they Israel’s most important trading partners but they have no friendly political base to run interference when the government wants to apply pressure. It’s not for nothing that when Netanyahu wanted to sabotage the Iran negotiations he went to Washington and none of the capitals of the five other powers in the negotiations.

Netanyahu has said a binational state is unacceptable because it would threaten Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic state, and he’s ruled out a Palestinian state for the foreseeable future. What’s the alternative? Indefinite occupation? Israeli author Amos Oz wrote, “The status quo in Israel is an illusion, to be replaced by the unacceptable – one Arab state.” These two cannot live in harmony in a single state after “having inflicted so much pain on each other for so long,” he said. “It is either two states by choice or one – Arab – state by default.”

Netanyahu never wanted to endorse the two-state solution although five of his predecessors already had. He went along reluctantly – and with caveats he knew the Palestinians would find unacceptable – under pressure from Obama. That and a settlement freeze were to be the keys to launching talks with Abbas.

Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month partial freeze and Abbas dawdled away the first nine months before agreeing to talk and then demanded Israel extend the freeze indefinitely if talks were to continue. Once more – and not for the last time – negotiations collapsed because neither side was willing to take them very seriously.

Each has regularly promised not to make unilateral and provocative moves, but they both did anyway, giving each other an excuse to walk away.

Netanyahu likes to say he has “no partner for peace” but that he has “natural partners” for forming the next government, Naftali Bennett and his right wing religious-settler party, Bayit Yehudi. Bennett is an outspoken foe of Palestinian statehood, wants to unilaterally annex three fifths of the West Bank and says the Torah is Israel’s deed to the land.

That should give some idea what Netanyahu means when he says Palestinian statehood is “simply not relevant” for the indefinite future.

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