To the casual listener, it certainly sounded as if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday night had renounced his support for a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu: Lapid and Gantz will establish a Palestinian state, February 24, 2019 (Courtesy)
In a televised, 16-minute speech, he expounded on one of his favorite campaign stances – fear of a left-wing government – as he attacked the new merger of his two strongest rivals, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid in the Blue and White Party.
On Netanyahu’s list of doomsday scenarios – should they best him in the upcoming elections – was the creation of a Palestinian state, something which he himself has repeatedly supported.
A government led by Lapid and Gantz, he warned, “will establish, I want to say sooner or later, but with them it will be much sooner, a Palestinian state.”
Such a state won’t be on the other side of the moon, it will “be here. It will be on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. It will be next to Afula and Beersheba,” he said.
Then, Netanyahu added, “A Palestinian state will endanger our existence.”
His words were a far cry from his famous policy speech at Bar Ilan University in 2009, in which he endorsed the idea of two states for two peoples.
At the time, he said, “if we get a guarantee of demilitarization, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state, we are ready to agree to a real peace agreement, a demilitarized Palestinian state side by side with the Jewish state.”
Netanyahu has not deviated from that stance in the last decade, even in the last two years, when US President Donald Trump has not demanded that Netanyahu swear a public allegiance to the idea of two-states.
As prime minister, Netanyahu has held a fine line balancing act between his leadership role as the head of the Right which rejects the idea of a Palestinian state and a diplomatic stance that could allow him to be the Israeli leader that makes history by resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It is a tight-rope walk that will be impossible for Netanyahu to hold onto in this election, where he remains the only top politician in his party who has not renounced a two-state resolution to the conflict.
That’s particularly true given his checkered history when it comes to his stances on the conflict and Palestinian statehood.
Netanyahu never renounced the 1993 Oslo Accords when he was prime minister from 1996-1998. During that first term in office he shook hands with former PA chairman Yasser Arafat and signed an agreement in 1997 that divided Hebron, placing 80% of the city under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority and leaving the remainder under the control of the IDF.
A year later he signed the Wye Agreement, which spoke of ceding territory in Area C of the West Bank, but it was never fully implemented.
Years later, he was finance minister from 2003-2005, he initially voted in the Knesset to support the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, before he resigned in protest at the last moment.
When he entered office in 2009, he was pressured by the US to impose a 10-month moratorium on new settler housing starts.
But since then, Netanyahu has slowly become more emboldened to make strong right-wing statements about the possible contours of a resolution to the conflict, including his repeated pledge not to uproot settlements.
Given the strong right-wing stances of other Likud politicians both in favor of annexing Area C of the West Bank and in opposition to a two-state solution, Thursday night’s statement is likely to be just the first of many such statements Netanyahu is likely to make during the campaign.
He will justify it to the Trump administration, which has yet to react, as a necessary campaign strategy.
During his last campaign for office in 2015, he also spoke briefly against a Palestinian state.
Diplomatic correspondent Ariel Kahana, then of Makor Rishon and now of Israel Hayom, asked him during a pre-election interview, if it was correct that in his next government a Palestinian state would not be established.
Netanyahu responded by saying, “correct.” The vagueness of the comment allowed for ambiguity over Netanyahu’s stance at a time when he was scrambling for right wing votes. Kahana said that at the time he heard the response as a promise that a Palestinian state would not be established.
After the election Netanyahu walked the statement back, by clarifying that his words were meant as an assessment of what was diplomatically possible. He continued to pledge his commitment to the idea of a demilitarized Palestinian state.
This time around Netanyahu can’t afford that kind of ambiguity. In this election, Netanyahu is likely to go as far right as he can to hold onto his seat, unless reined in by the Trump administration.
But those wanting to know what his stance truly is on Palestinian statehood, or whether or not he has truly renounced the position he expressed at Bar Ilan, will have to wait until after the election, when Netanyahu will once again care more about Washington, than the right-wing Israeli voter.
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