Netanyahu sails with open eyes into confrontation with Biden - analysis

Netanyahu must lay out incentives to the Palestinian Authority.

 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends Arnon Milchan's video testimony, during Netanyahu's ongoing trial at the District Court in Jerusalem, June 25, 2023. (photo credit: ATEF SAFADI/POOL VIA REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends Arnon Milchan's video testimony, during Netanyahu's ongoing trial at the District Court in Jerusalem, June 25, 2023.

"Israel needs to eliminate the Palestinian aspiration for statehood."

That, according to Kan Bet, is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week during a meeting that discussed Israel's preparations for the post-Mahmoud Abbas era in the Palestinian Authority.

If that quote is accurate, and no one denied it, it reflects a change in Netanyahu's position from his famous Bar-Ilan speech in 2009, at the beginning of his premiership and the presidency of Barack Obama. Back then, he stated that he would support a Palestinian state if he received international guarantees of its demilitarization and if the Palestinians accepted Israel as the Jewish homeland.

Netanyahu's comment in the Knesset clearly shows that he has changed that position. Moreover, the government's settlement policy reflects this change.

On Monday, the Civil Administration's Higher Planning Council met to advance the construction of some 4,560 housing units in existing settlements. Some of these units received final approval, while the majority received approval to move to the next stage.

 View of the Jewish settlement of Eli, in the West Bank on January 17, 2021.  (credit: SRAYA DIAMANT/FLASH90)
View of the Jewish settlement of Eli, in the West Bank on January 17, 2021. (credit: SRAYA DIAMANT/FLASH90)

Israel was already blasted by the US, EU, and UN last week when it announced the Higher Planning Council would meet to approve these plans. Now that the meeting has taken place, Israel can expect to be blasted again.

Some may ask why Netanyahu is doing this. Why is the prime minister sailing with eyes wide open into a direct confrontation with the Biden Administration? Doesn't he want a long-delayed invitation to the White House? Doesn't he want US assistance in dealing with Iran?

That Netanyahu is going ahead with these plans may suggest that he doesn't think an invitation to meet Biden is in the offing anyhow, so this will not disrupt any potential meeting.

Regarding Iran, just as the US is unhappy with Israel's settlement policy, but Israel continues to pursue it, Jerusalem is similarly displeased with the current administration's Iranian policy and the emerging "less for less" deal that would see partial sanctions relief on Iran by the West in return for some partial nuclear concessions by Tehran. Nevertheless, the US is still pursuing that deal.

There is, however, one significant difference. Israel's settlement policy is not an existential threat to the US; a nuclear-armed Iran, or an Iran flush with freed-up funds it can deliver to proxies intent on harming Israel, is a real and present danger to Israel.

Some will argue that coalition politics and naked political interest are driving Netanyahu's decision to proceed with the settlement approvals.

In this line of thinking, Netanyahu is considering the following factors in his decision-making process: If he proceeds with building, he may face condemnation from Washington and experience consequences for this policy. This was already demonstrated when the US announced recently the reinstatement of a ban on using American taxpayer money to fund research and development programs beyond the Green Line. Additionally, there have been reports that Washington pushed for the postponement of a scheduled meeting in Morocco involving the foreign ministers of Israel, Egypt, and the Abraham Accord countries.

On the other hand, if Netanyahu chooses not to build, he might risk losing support from his base, particularly given the current heightened atmosphere of terror in Judea and Samaria. He also made promises about settlement expansion to the Religious Zionist and Otzma Yehudit parties, and not fulfilling those pledges could possibly bring down his government. In this situation, Netanyahu is indicating that he would rather face criticism from the Americans than risk losing his government.

But there is another reason why he might be doing this not only connected to political considerations: he believes building homes in Judea and Samaria is the right thing to do and will move toward eliminating Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

Biden is pursuing some accord with Iran, which Israel opposes because he thinks it serves America's interests. Likewise, Netanyahu is pursuing an aggressive settlement policy, which the US opposes because he thinks it is in Israel’s interests.

Netanyahu's comment about eliminating Palestinian aspirations for statehood did not come out of left field and did not mark an abrupt shift from the position he articulated in 2009 at Bar-Ilan University. Instead, there has been a gradual evolution in his thinking on the matter.

One clear break from the Bar-Ilan speech took place in the final days of the 2015 elections, a heated campaign against then-Labor Party head and now-President Isaac Herzog, when he said in an interview, "I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to radical Islam against the state of Israel."

Two years later, he talked about a "state-minus," telling a cabinet meeting in 2017 that he was willing to give this to the Palestinians. Later that year, in an interview with the BBC, he described what that meant: "I think they should have all the powers to govern themselves and none of the powers to threaten us."

He reiterated that position in an interview with NPR in December, following the November 1 election that returned him to power.

"My formula is very simple," he said. "The only peace that will hold is one that we can defend. And the one that we can defend is one in which the Palestinians have all the powers to govern themselves but none of the powers to threaten our life, which means that security and whatever political arrangements we'll have, realistically, will have to remain in Israel's hands."

One of the reasons always given by the US for its adamant opposition to any settlement building is that this will preclude a two-state solution. But, as Netanyahu made clear in the Knesset committee meeting, he no longer adheres to the two-state solution formula.

If indeed that is the case, then he must articulate what he proposes instead.

A need for the Palestinian Authority

This is especially true since, during the Knesset committee meeting, he also made it clear that Israel does not want to see the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

"We need the Palestinian Authority," he said. "We cannot allow it to collapse. We also do not want it to collapse. We are prepared to help it financially. We have an interest in the Palestinian Authority continuing to work."

Kan Bet quoted the prime minister as adding, "In the areas which it manages to act, it does the work for us. And we have no interest in it collapsing."

That being the case, Netanyahu must lay out incentives to the Palestinian Authority. Up until now, when security cooperation has worked with the PA, it worked because the Palestinians believed this would be the path to statehood. But if Netanyahu is blocking that path through word and action, then what incentive do they have for working with Israel? It behooves Netanyahu to spell out those incentives in detail.

This situation reflects one of the key problems Israel has faced over the years: an inability to clearly state what it wants concerning the Palestinians and Judea and Samaria. 

The Palestinians know what they want and express it clearly to the world: a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel has not been able to do the same. The reason is that it has yet to reach an internal consensus regarding its objectives, and as a result, it cannot articulate to the world what it wants because it has not fully defined it.

With his words and settlement actions, Netanyahu clearly says that he does not want a two-state solution. He now, as clearly, needs to spell out what he does want and how he intends to achieve it. 

Once Israel defines where it wants to go, it will have a better chance of getting there. But without a clear destination in mind,  how can it be expected to arrive there?