Defense Minister Benny Gantz flew to Washington last week, followed by a short jump to Miami and New York. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flew to Abu Dhabi on Sunday, spent the night, and quickly returned to Israel.
Both followed Israeli corona regulations, and met one another Monday evening in the Knesset’s isolation wing where MKs can attend votes separated from the crowd. But both ended up having to extend their isolation after people on their planes were found to be infected with the virus.
Quite the ending to the duo’s trips. Bennett had come from Abu Dhabi, where he sat for a long meeting with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, and Gantz had been received with an honor guard at the Pentagon before sitting down with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The next day, in Miami, he received a standing ovation at the Israeli-American Council annual summit.
Where Gantz was greeted with less warmth was Foggy Bottom, where he met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Officials described the meeting as tough – and a little bizarre – with US officials wanting to focus the same amount of time on settlement construction as on Iran.
What was surprising was hearing that the Israelis who were at the meeting were surprised. They shouldn’t have been. Blinken is one of the most senior officials in an administration that has long pursued a two-state solution, and believes strongly that settlements are an impediment.
Right or wrong does not matter here. This is what the administration believes, similar to the way the settlements were perceived by the Obama administration. To be surprised is to be unprepared.
The surprise doesn’t come from nowhere. It follows four years of the Trump presidency during which settlements were never an issue, as well as the first year of the Biden administration, which held back criticism to let the new Bennett-Lapid government succeed. That the Palestinians did not come up for discussion during Bennett’s visit to Abu Dhabi adds to that feeling that the world has moved on and no longer cares about this age-old conflict. Unlike Gantz, who felt heat in Washington, Bennett barely heard the word “Palestinian” in the UAE.
And that is the problem today with the government in Jerusalem. Listening to Bennett speak, one gets the impression that he sincerely believes that the diversity of the government and the inclusion of an Arab party – undoubtedly historic – is a reason for the world to give him a pass when it comes to the Palestinians.
But the world won’t, and certainly not the Biden administration or Europe. And while Gantz felt that firsthand – Blinken wanted clarification on the legal battle over Sheikh Jarrah, and the planned building in Atarot – there is no reason to expect the Israeli government to suddenly change the way it approaches the issue.
Bennett seems to think that what worked for Netanyahu can potentially work for him. The problem there is twofold. The first is that Bennett is not as good a manipulator as Netanyahu (which is a good thing, by the way). The second is that Bennett is not going to suddenly give the Bar-Ilan speech in which he verbally embraces a two-state solution, as Netanyahu did in 2009.
Netanyahu, we now know, did all of these things to stall for time with Obama and to preserve the status quo. He played similar games with Donald Trump, leading the president to believe Netanyahu supported a two-state solution, but then being surprised when the prime minister refused to take the steps needed to make it happen.
Bennett won’t do the same. He won’t give a speech embracing a Palestinian state, a move that even for him would be a step too far. On the other hand, continuing to ignore the existence of the Palestinian people is also not a viable solution.
After four years left out in the cold, the Palestinians are moving closer to the Americans and are starting to once again see eye-to-eye on issues like settlements and more. That was the feeling in Ramallah after a visit there this week by US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland.
The question for Israel is what does it want to do. True, there is the convenient excuse of the makeup of the current government. With Right, Left and Arab parties in the coalition, it will be extremely difficult to take any step in any direction that leaves an indelible mark on the ground.
But if that is the position of the government partnership, then Israel should not be surprised when officials like Blinken take ministers like Gantz to task over settlement construction. This is why it is time for Bennett and Yair Lapid to realize that excuses are not a long-term strategy.
Yes, the government established in June is unique and unprecedented. But that will only yield so much credit. Like governments before, Bennett needs to formulate a strategy on how to manage the Palestinian issue. The thought that he can outsmart the US and buy time leads to one place and one place only: a tense relationship with Biden at a time (Iran nuclear talks) when he needs to be strengthening that front, not weakening it.
The problem remains the same as it has been for years: Israel refuses to understand that it needs to decide what it wants. Waiting is not a solution, it is a tactic. Like his predecessor, Bennett too is refusing to provide Israelis with a vision on how he wants to end this conflict.
THE SURPRISE that some of Gantz’s staff felt when hearing about the settlements from Blinken was kind of like the surprise some Israeli politicians sensed when they read a tweet this week by Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev, that he had discussed “settler violence” with Nuland.
It was a seemingly innocuous tweet, but one that got the former commander of Sayeret Matkal into hot water with Bennett and other right-wing members of the coalition.
“Settlers in Judea and Samaria have suffered daily from violence and terrorism for decades,” Bennett tweeted in response. “They serve as a protective wall for all of us, and we must protect them in word and in deed.”
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked went a step further, telling Bar Lev on Twitter: “You’re confused. The settlers are the salt of the earth. What should shock us are the daily incidents in which stones and Molotov cocktails are thrown at Jews – just because they are Jews – with the assistance of the PA. I suggest that you talk about this violence with Nuland.”
Shaked is right. There are daily attacks by Palestinians against the Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria. The IDF recorded 1,769 such incidents in 2020, out of which 1,500 involved stonings, 229 Molotov cocktails, 31 shootings and nine stabbings. On Thursday night there was sadly another shooting attack that killed one Israel in northern Samaria.
But that doesn’t mean that Bar Lev is wrong. Unfortunately, not a week goes by in recent months when there has not been an incident involving settler attacks against Palestinians somewhere in the West Bank. Some of these incidents make the news, but many don’t.
The real question is why Israelis can’t deal with this, can’t recognize that there are rotten people among us who need to be dealt with – to be stopped, arrested and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
I do not accept any equivalence of Jewish terrorism – minimal, and not state-sanctioned – to Palestinian terrorism, which occurs in large numbers and is supported by the PA with salaries to prisoners. But that does not mean we shouldn’t admit that something bad is happening, and that it needs to be confronted.
What Bar Lev really encountered here was an attempt by some to pretend that this problem does not even exist. Just as Bennett and his government want to ignore the existence of the Palestinians and having to think up real and viable ways to end the conflict, there are elements among the Right who want to pretend that there is no settler violence.
There is, and it needs to stop. The first step is recognizing reality, not running away from it.