Can Bennett stand up to US on settlements, Palestinian state?

Bennett throughout his political career has been clear that he believes that all of Area C, where all the Israeli settlements are located should be part of sovereign Israel.

Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett gives a press conference at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on May 05, 2021.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett gives a press conference at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on May 05, 2021.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett sounded like the right-wing leader that he is when he promised in his Knesset speech, to “ensure the national interest in Area C” of the West Bank.
It’s not an idle line. The phrase was also written into the coalition agreement between his Yamina Party and that of Yesh Atid.
It was a statement designed to sound to the Israeli Right as if prolonged battle for Israeli control of Area C, that has involved settlement building and the demolition of illegal Palestinian construction, would continue under the new coalition composed of right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties.
Bennett, throughout his political career has been clear that he believes that all of Area C, where all the Israeli settlements are located should be part of sovereign Israel. In the Knesset on Sunday he also spoke of his intent to “strengthen the settlements throughout the Land of Israel.”
MK Ahmed Tibi (Joint List) told the Knesset he understood from those phrases that Bennett intended to pursue a pro-settler policy.
More to the point, while Bennett spoke of the importance of upholding and expanding the peace deals with Arab nations, he neither pledged his support for a Palestinian state nor offered his hand in peace to the Palestinians.
Bennett has long been on record of opposing a Palestinian state. On Sunday he presented the conflict with the Palestinians as an existential one.
“Last month we received a reminder that the conflict with the Palestinians still exists,” Bennett told the Knesset. “We must remember and we must remind the world that our enemies deny our very existence as a Jewish state in the Land of Israel,” Bennett said.
He emphasized, “This is not a dispute over territory.”
Forget about how this right-wing take on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict works with his left-wing and Arab coalition partners, one has to ask how it will co-exist with a US administration bent on preserving the bulk of Area C for a future Palestinian state by preventing further settlement expansion.
In his outgoing speech at the Knesset Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscored the challenge on this front, noting that US President Joe Biden had already requested “a freeze” on settlement building and Jewish construction in east Jerusalem.
In addition he said the US was bent on reopening the US Consulate-General in east Jerusalem, which the Trump administration had closed. It had served for decades as a de facto embassy for the Palestinians.
Netanyahu said he had suggested to the US that the consulate be opened in Abu Dis, but the Biden administration wants to place it “in the heart” of “sovereign Jerusalem.” If that happens, Netanyahu said, the issue of dividing Jerusalem “would be back on the table.”
Even more significantly he warned that the Biden administration was renewing efforts to support a Palestinian state that “threatens our existence” and warned that along side the Iranian threat this challenge to Israel must be halted.
In a speech that sounded like a campaign address rather than a statement of concession, he said that only he could prevent Biden from acting against Israel’s interest on settlements and a Palestinian state. He touted as an example his refusal of the Obama administration’s policy on Iran as proof that when it matters he can stand strong against the US; something he said that Bennett would not be able to do. Bennett promises, but does not deliver, Netanyahu charged.
But it was an odd statement coming from Netanyahu whose weak point on the international stage has always been the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Netanyahu has always presented himself as the King of the Right, the leader who can best defend the settlements.
But in reality, it is his place of utmost compromise. Far from standing strong against the United States, he has a bent at almost every turn including this year. Since Biden entered office no West Bank settlements plans have been advanced or approved.
At the request of former President Barack Obama he imposed a ten month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank in 2009 and 2010. He did not approve the construction of 3,500 homes in the E1 section of the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement. It’s a project that the US has persistently opposed.
Netanyahu did not authorize all the West Bank outposts. While it's convenient to blame the lack of their authorization on Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the Blue and White leader came onto the scene much later in the game. Netanyahu could have moved on the outposts prior to his coalition with Gantz and did not.
The approval of entirely new settlements remained a rare event. Most significantly, Netanyahu put the brakes on annexation drives both at the end of Obama’s term and also at the start of former US president Donald Trump’s tenure.
Netanyahu preferred to wait to do annexation with Trump’s support. Then when it seemed like he had that backing, Netanyahu pledged to apply sovereignty to West Bank settlements, only to halt that drive when Trump withdrew his support.
Similarly at Obama’s request he spoke of his support for a demilitarized Palestinian state and reissued his pledge to back such statehood under Trump.
Netanyahu, of all the politicians, has left the door wide open for Bennett to make compromises in this sphere, no matter how right-wing he might have sounded in the Knesset.
Like Netanyahu, Bennett has a strong proficiency in English and as the son of US immigrants can easily converse with the Biden administration.
Bennett is to the Right of Netanyahu politically, but he has only one coalition partner who supports his position, the New Hope Party led by Gideon Sa’ar.
So he will be sandwiched between a US President who opposes his policies on the Israeli-Palestinian track, and the opposition of many of his coalition partners.
Unlike Netanyahu, who has known Biden for four decades, he can not immediately isolate him. But Netanyahu has set the bar fairly low when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian track.
As Netanyahu spoke Sunday, Bennett sat with his arms folded and smiled. Now it remains to be seen if he will find a way to hold onto his principles, without isolating the US or his coalition partners on an issue that will be a consistent tension point in Jerusalem and Washington.