Netanyahu’s zigzag road: Palestinian statehood to West Bank sovereignty

The best Netanyahu could muster was a promise that Jews will remain in Hebron forever.

Prme Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks next to a monument for fallen IDF soldiers (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prme Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks next to a monument for fallen IDF soldiers
Hebron sovereignty, really?
Isn’t Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 12 days, let alone 22 years late, in making such a pledge on the radio Monday morning – just one day before Israel heads to the polls?
On September 4, Netanyahu had set the perfect political stage to announce Israeli sovereignty over the ancient shrine, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Israel’s biblical forefathers and foremothers are buried in what is now a predominantly West Bank Palestinian city.
That day, Netanyahu was in Hebron to make amends with right-wing voters in the Otzma and Yamina parties’ stronghold. He became the first prime minister to deliver a public address in the city, whose placement within Israel’s final sovereign borders has always been a question mark. It was the moment when a few words could have made history.
Sovereignty was in the air in the ceremonial white tent set up for the event, but the anticipation quickly deflated. The best Netanyahu could muster was a promise that Jews will remain in Hebron forever.
But how? Would the Jews live under IDF, Palestinian or Israeli rule? Netanyahu never said.
Then, 12 days later on Monday, in an interview with Army Radio, he impatiently tossed out the idea of Hebron sovereignty in the Jewish area – as if it was obvious, something that he would clearly do, but just somehow hadn’t got around to in the last decade.
Gone was the cautious diplomat who stood in Hebron by a podium with the seal of Israel on a stage festooned with Israeli flags. Then he was all about the campaign of diplomatic dignity, preserving the option to take right-wing or left-wing actions based on the demands of the international arena or the demands of US President Donald Trump.
In the last few days, Netanyahu has been campaigning in full-throttle fear mode. Like a street brawler throwing punches for political survival, he has been wildly swinging his fists with the sole objective of knocking out his rivals at any cost — including those on the right: Yamina and Otzma.
He is hardly resting on his right-wing laurels of swaying the US to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights.
To woo setters and right-wing voters, Netanyahu has offered a myriad of mirage-like gestures, which his supporters have begged, rallied, stormed and schemed to receive from him for the last decade. Topping the list is the repeal of the 1993 Oslo Accords with sovereignty for the settlements, even in the most problematic places including Hebron and Ma’aleh Adumim’s E1.
It’s not the first time Netanyahu has turned to sovereignty as a campaign ploy. In his failed 1999 campaign, after three years in office as prime minister, he offered a slimmed down version of the same promise when pressed by Channel 2; “I am weighing the application of Israeli law on territory under our control.”
In that same conversation he pledged that he always kept his promises. But in the 10 years he has been in office, Netanyahu has suppressed multiple annexation drives, including from members of his own party who felts that Trump presented a one-time opportunity for Israel to act.
In the last decade, Netanyahu has raised diplomatic ambiguity to an art form. He maintained his diplomatic cachet with former democratic US president Barack Obama, who was intent on a deal for a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines. At the same time, Netanyahu held his seat as the leader of an Israeli-right wing government determined not to give up a centimeter of territory.
At the heart of this dizzying seesaw of left- and right-wing positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an internal debate over diplomatic and political legacy.
Netanyahu branded himself early in his career as a right-wing thinker. Using the pseudonym Ben Nitay, he participated in a 1978 debate about Palestinian self-determination in Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, footage of which can easily be found on YouTube. Netanyahu speaks there of Jordan as the Palestinian state, and disavows the creation of one in the West Bank. “There is no right to establish a second Palestinian state on my doorstep – no right whatsoever,” he declared.
He didn’t stop there. As Likud opposition head, he railed against the Oslo Accords and the dangers of Palestinian statehood. Then Netanyahu pivoted after the 1996 election even as he still claimed his place on the Right. Upholding the Oslo Accords, he famously shook hands with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and signed the Wye Agreement with the PA in 1998. He also divided Hebron in 1997, placing 80% of it H2, under the auspices of the PA, and the rump under Israeli rule in H1. Upon reelection in 2009, he delivered his famous Bar-Ilan address committing himself to two states for two peoples, and stating his support for “a demilitarized Palestinian state side-by-side with a Jewish state.”
He followed that by imposing the strictest settlement freeze ever put in place by any Israeli prime minister, a 10-month moratorium on housing starts.
Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon of the rival Blue and White Party charged last week that during the nine-month US-led Israeli-Palestinian peace process that ended in failure in April 2014, Netanyahu was willing to give up Jordan Valley settlements in exchange for a temporary Israeli military force there for a period of three to five years.
“I was the one who stopped him,” Ya’alon said. Martin Indyk, who was the US envoy at the time working with Kerry, tweeted his support for Ya’alon’s version of events, noting that at the time Netanyahu did not speak of annexation.
But already Netanyahu was zigzaging back to the right, pushed by failed peace attempts and the PA’s drive for unilateral statehood.
He spoke of authorizing construction in the controversial E1 area of Ma’aleh Adumim; he never made good on the pledge. He reversed a 1999 promise not to create new settlements, and in 2012 he authorized three West Bank outposts, transforming them into settlements. This was followed, in 2017, by the creation of the entirely new Amichai settlement, and a 2018 government vote to authorize the Gilad Farm outpost.
In Hebron, he authorized new building, created a local governing council for its Jewish community and ended the mandate of the international observers, known as the Temporary International Presence in Hebron.
Pushed by the former justice minister Ayelet Shaked and the Bayit Yehudi Party to which she belonged, he allowed the Knesset to pass a law that revolutionized Israel’s legal understanding of West Bank land use in a way that greatly expanded settler development potential.
Effectively he also erased the entire Clinton era idea of settlement blocs, allowing for Jewish building in all of Area C in the West Bank.
It has been Netanyahu’s pattern to lean right just prior to an election before turning left in its aftermath. But in none of the last four elections has he so actively embraced sovereignty as he has in the last week, promising to annex 31 West Bank settlements, including all of the Jordan Valley, immediately upon the formation of a government.
On Sunday, Netanyahu entered his pledge into Israel’s public record by speaking of his annexation plan at a cabinet meeting which he held for the first time ever in the Jordan Valley – and underscoring it by offering initial approval for a new West Bank settlement in that region.
A cabinet meeting outside Israel’s sovereign borders went a long way toward making a statement about sovereign rule in an area that the Palestinians hold will be part of their future state.
As Netanyahu’s tenure in office lengthens, each election – and this is now his fifth – increasingly becomes a referendum on his performance. This one is no different. But it is telling that a prime minister who entered office with a pledge to recognize Palestinian statehood has in the last week openly said that a vote for him is a vote for sovereignty.
If Netanyahu’s worst fears are correct — and he loses the election — then Sunday’s Jordan Valley meeting could mark his last moment on the diplomatic stage.
He held this last hurrah on a sandy hilltop in the Jordan Valley, overlooking rows of date palms set against a reddish horizon beyond which lies Jordan, Iraq and then Israel’s arch-enemy Iran.
If Netanyahu wins, it will be hard to walk back the pledge he made under the shadow of a monument to fallen IDF soldiers. If he loses, then he has made a personal political statement that will define his legacy, returning him to his right-wing roots at a hillside not far from where the Israelites forded the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land some 3,400 years ago.
On Tuesday, right-wing voters will have to decide if Netanyahu will lead them to the promised land of sovereignty, or whether it is one more election promise that will zigzag away once he has secured another five-year term in office.