Can Israel swap Palestinian state for Palestinian entity? - analysis

Benny Gantz was labeled by Netanyahu as being left-wing, but his recent comment about a future Palestinian 'entity' and not state is a reminder that he never supported the two-state solution.

 PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz (photo credit: SPUTNIK/EVGENY BIYATOV/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS, YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz

To those who paid careful attention, it should have come as no surprise that Defense Minister Benny Gantz rejects a two-state resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians, in favor of what he has coined "two-entities."

Gantz's Blue and White Party platform does not speak of two states, but rather vaguely references retaining "an open horizon for a diplomatic arrangement."

The platform mentions the Palestinians only twice: once with respect to economic development and again when speaking of freedom of movement.  

The link between Gantz and the two-state concept was coined by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It was the Likud party leader who, during the last elections cycles, labeled Gantz as a dangerous left-wing politician who would lead an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank to allow for the creation of a Palestinian state.

 Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum, February 7, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum, February 7, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In one of the Likud Party campaign attack ads against Gantz in 2019, Netanyahu claimed that, during the last round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2013-2014, Gantz had prepared an Israeli withdrawal plan for the Obama administration to the pre-1967 lines.

The Likud campaign ad further charged that when Netanyahu uncovered what Gantz, then the IDF Chief-of-Staff, was up to, he halted the plan in its tracks.

"Netanyahu is Right, strong. Gantz is Left, weak," claimed the ad, which of course was tweeted by Netanyahu.

NETANYAHU'S PERPETUAL false rebranding of Gantz, a centrist right-wing politician, as a radical left-winger was politically convenient for the Blue and White politician during the election season when political expediency could have required him to swing Left or Right. 

He himself made careful comments that could easily have spun on a dime in either political direction.

The perception, however, that Gantz supported two states and leaned left with respect to the conflict was not solely Netanyahu's fault.

The current defense minister stood out in the last years both for his comments about the need for dialogue with the Palestinians and Arab nations as well for his strong opposition to growing calls to annex West Bank settlements.

The application of Israeli sovereignty to Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria was initially stalled by the Trump administration and then suspended in exchange for the Abraham Accords.

Gantz's opposition, however, is also credited with helping to thwart the plan. 

Then there was his unequivocal and early support for the Trump peace plan that spoke of two states, albeit with 30% of the West Bank set aside for Israel. Gantz himself uttered the words "two states" in endorsing the Trump plan.

Gantz's two meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, one in Ramallah and the other at his home in Rosh Ha'ayin, gave the impression of the start of possible behind-the-scenes talk for two states, despite denials of any high-level political discourse of that nature.

IT WAS natural then that Gantz, who just returned from a visit to Bahrain, would appear on stage at the Munich Security Conference in Germany with Emirati diplomatic adviser Anwar Mohammed Gargash and Bahraini under-secretary Abdullah Bin Ahmed al-Khalifa.

In this international forum, there was wide acceptance that the eventual resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a two-state resolution based on the pre-1967 lines.

It was here that Gantz pushed back and chose to clarify that he was not a left-wing politician.

In so doing, he also delivered the most public introduction of his preferred new language for a potential resolution to the conflict: not two states, but two entities.

What he meant was that in the future, there would be an Israeli state and a Palestinian "entity." The Palestinians would possess autonomy, but not full statehood.

When Gantz first uttered the word "entities," the disconnect between his perceived diplomatic stance and his vocabulary was so great, that one almost chalked the new language up to the fact that he is not a native English speaker. Surely, one imagined, he meant to say "states."

But the defense minister quickly clarified for the startled audience that he had deliberately spoken of "two-entities," not "two-states" because he did not want to evoke the illusion that he accepted a Palestinian state at the pre-1967 line, or in fact at any line, preferring instead an autonomous entity.

It is not the first time he has spoken this way. In an interview he granted the Saudi paper Asharq al-Awsat last year, Gantz also spoke of a Palestinian entity, not a state. Similarly, he slipped it into his public comments when he met with European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell and in a number of election interviews. But the words were largely overlooked.

Here, however, there was no mistaking them.

Gantz, of course, is not the only politician in the coalition to disavow Palestinian statehood.

PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett of the Yamina Party has flat out rejected the idea of a Palestinian state, speaking instead of Palestinian autonomy on steroids. Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar of the New Hope Party has similarly dismissed Palestinian statehood.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, in contrast, speaks easily of a two-state resolution to the conflict, including on Monday when he gave a public interview to Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Yaakov Katz at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem.  

"I am a believer in the two-state solution," Lapid said, emphasizing that "I think this is the only way we can solve this" conflict.

But then he added some caveats, including the maintenance of a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. 

The Palestinians "have to understand the city we are sitting in right now is ours. Jerusalem is the capital" of Israel, Lapid underscored.

It was a sharp reminder of the extreme disconnect between Israelis and Palestinians when speaking of two states.

Palestinians and much of the international community are united around the concept of a two-state resolution based on the pre-1967 borders, including in Jerusalem. The extent to which Palestinians could be willing to deviate from those lines is very minor and would involve land swaps. 

For Israelis, the phrase "two states" designates acceptance of Palestinian self-determination. It also allows for conversations with Palestinians on the matter. When both groups use the phrase, it is possible to imagine that they meant the same thing and the divide between them is less apparent.

But aside from Meretz and the Arab parties, for most Israelis supporting an Israeli return to the pre-1967 lines, it means anything but that kind of a withdrawal.

The range of options runs from Israeli retention of settlement blocs to retention of all the settlements and/or up to 30% of the West Bank, as set out under the Trump plan. It could include a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty or it could mean Israeli retention of Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.

Territorial boundaries are not the only dividing line. The Palestinian state Israelis speak of would have a security force but not an independent army; Israel would continue to control its borders.

Netanyahu, when he spoke of "two states" for two peoples, spoke of a Palestinian "state minus," as in an entity that was slightly less than a full state.

Gantz's words on Sunday might have sounded like he was introducing a new concept, but in reality, he put forward a vision in line with that of many of his Israeli peers.

Unlike them, however, he simply chose to be blunt and not dress up his concept of a Palestinian entity in the trappings of full statehood.