There was a time when both Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak seemed destined for
great things. As Israel’s silvertongued UN ambassador in the mid-1980s,
Netanyahu dazzled seasoned diplomats and left Likud rank and file gaping in awe.
Scattering his rivals like so much chaff, he became party leader at age 44 and,
three years later in 1996, prime minister with the world at his
Equally precocious, Barak, the most articulate and cerebral of IDF
generals, ousted Netanyahu just four years after retiring from the military with
a euphoric nation solidly behind him.
Both dramatically failed to fulfill
their early promise. Netanyahu, in trying to reverse the Oslo process, ran afoul
of the US and the “new day” Barak promised in the wake of his predecessor’s dark
night never dawned.
Now more than a decade later, the two men are again
running the country, this time as a team, with Netanyahu at the helm and Defense
Minister Barak his closest and most trusted lieutenant. Sadly, past failure
seems to have made them more adept at political survival than at the mature
policymaking Israel desperately needs to ensure its long-term goals.
the key issue of two states for two peoples, which will determine whether Israel
survives as the Jewish and democratic state envisioned by the Zionist fathers,
Netanyahu has won a string of brilliant tactical victories that add up to a
major strategic defeat. By presenting conditions he knew the Palestinians
couldn’t accept and Israeli “patriots” wouldn’t dare take issue with, he stalled
the peace process and neutered the Israeli peace camp.
The result has
been three barren years on the negotiating front, with most Israelis convinced
the Palestinians are to blame for the stalemate. There has been hardly a peep
from the main opposition peace parties, Kadima and Labor, both afraid to lose
votes by voicing unpopular peace talk. This has created a vicious circle
perpetuating the occupation and pushing the two-state solution further and
further away to a point where it may no longer be attainable. Netanyahu’s
shallow tactical success is Israel’s profound strategic loss.
goes for Israel’s relations with America. In May last year, US President Barack
Obama pressed for reaffirmation of the 1967 borders with land swaps as the basis
for territorial negotiations. Netanyahu balked, spelling out his reservations in
a rousing speech to a receptive Republican Congress. With US presidential
elections looming, Obama backed down, handing Netanyahu another tactical victory
and Israel a double-edged strategic defeat: less American drive for the
two-state solution and strains in Israel’s ties with the US
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Early this year, after Netanyahu backtracked on the 1967
plus land swaps formula and the Palestinians failed to get the UN to impose a
solution, the Quartet (US, EU, UN and Russia) together with the Jordanians tried
unsuccessfully to salvage the process.
They urged the two sides to
present papers outlining their respective visions of future borders as a basis
But at the final session in Amman in late January,
Israel’s chief delegate Yitzhak Molcho refused to submit anything in writing and
the initiative petered out.
The way out So is the two-state solution
dead? Not unless Israel decides to kill it off and with it the dream of a Jewish
On the contrary, there is now a great opening to make the
two-state solution a reality.
When the Palestinians go back to the UN
seeking recognition for their fledgling state, Israel should be the first to
back them. It should agree to pull back from most of the West Bank, which, along
the new lines and together with Gaza, would become the recognized Palestinian
To allay Palestinian fears that this would be the end of the
process, Israel should also make a commitment to negotiate final borders, the
status of Jerusalem and the refugee issue on a state to state
Ideally, this would be done through a signed agreement with the
Palestinians, building on the progress made in 2008 by Netanyahu’s predecessor
Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud
Alternatively, and more realistically, it could be informally
coordinated with the Palestinians, primarily through the Americans. In this
case, both sides would make commitments to the US: the Palestinians on
demilitarization; Israel on continuing to negotiate final borders and all other
outstanding issues in good faith; both sides on resolving outstanding issues
By taking these steps, Israel would put in place a two-state
reality and reverse the current corrosive one-state dynamic. Most importantly,
it would secure its supreme strategic goal: a democratic state with a Jewish majority unequivocally endorsed
by virtually the entire international community.
Will Netanyahu take this
course? Probably not, partly because it entails settlement evacuation, which
would almost certainly bring down his current rightwing coalition.
Barak, he is long past pushing Netanyahu in the right direction. He too has been
more concerned with political survival than doing what needs to be done. He
could have pressured Netanyahu as head of Labor, but instead chose to split the
party and retain the Defense Ministry, forfeiting whatever political clout he
may have had.
Other omissions The foot-dragging on the two-state solution
is not Netanyahu/Barak Mark II ’s only cardinal omission. They have done nothing
to get more ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the army and/or join the labor
force, without which experts say Israel’s economic growth will be severely
And they have done little to stem the tide of undemocratic
legislation by the far Right, which, together with the ongoing occupation, fuels
efforts to delegitimize Israel on the international stage, a situation that will
only get worse if Netanyahu/ Barak continue to neglect the two state
For the past three years, Netanyahu and Barak have been
focusing almost exclusively on the Iranian nuclear threat. But time for other
equally dangerous existential challenges has not been standing still. As they
peel their eyes for nuclear break-out in Tehran, they could miss the break-out
points where the one-state dynamic becomes unstoppable, legislation for Haredim
to serve and work is no longer politically possible, and undemocratic trends
pass the point of no return.
There is a crying need now for a grand
pragmatic secular coalition that would reverse the one-state dynamic by imposing
a two-state reality, replace the Tal law with an arrangement that gets Haredim
to serve and work; and block narrow nationalist trends by emphasizing wider
With or without elections, Netanyahu could lead it.
Otherwise he could well go down in history as the man who shortsightedly
derailed the Zionist enterprise, with Barak as his chief collaborator: Two men
of great promise, two great patriots, who for narrow tactical gains, failed on
the big strategic stage.
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