Netanyahu, the Israeli election and the peace process

January 22, 2013

(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Early exit poll returns from Israel, which is having its national election today, show Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likely to return to power, though weakened and more reliant on other parties.

What does the election mean for the Israel-Palestine peace process? Centrist parties, which favor pursuing a two-state solution, saw surprising success in the exit polls. But  to a lesser degree, so did a the rising star of the settler movement, a religious nationalist party called Jewish Home. That is not a necessarily great sign for a two-state solution.

If you follow Israeli politics closely, you've probably already read David Remnick's (now week-old) New Yorker article on the rise of right-wing parties and settler-friendly politics. In case you haven't, Remnick wrote that the "ideological core" of Jewish Home's controversial leader, Naftali Bennet, is "an unswerving conviction that the Palestinian Arabs of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem might as well relinquish their hopes  for a sovereign state." Bennet's ambition is for Israel to annex most of the West Bank outright and to, as he told Remnick, "do everything in my power to make sure [the Palestinians] never get a state."

This would seem to position Netanyahu between two very different forces in Israeli politics. So what does the prime minister himself believe? Two of the most often-cited datapoints on Netanyahu and the peace process are, first, the 2009 speech where he announced his support for a two-state solution and, second, his relationship with his father, Benzion Netanyahu, who was thought to oppose a two-state solution and who died last April.

Here's what Remnick wrote about Netanyahu's relationship to his father, about his speech, and about how the two are perceived by fellow members of his Likud party:

When Bibi was Prime Minister the first time, in the mid-nineties, I interviewed Benzion, and his ferocious distrust of Arabs was matched only by his determination that his son resist international pressure to relinquish land. In large measure, Bibi is his father’s political son. And yet, in 2009, he gave a speech at Bar-Ilan University in which he seemingly broke with Revisionist ideology and Likud politics by talking about a “demilitarized” Palestinian state. Netanyahu has done almost nothing to follow through on a two-state solution, and most Likud politicians today contend that he was deeply ambivalent about the speech, which caused a serious rift with his father and within the Party. They are convinced that he did it mainly to placate Barack Obama.

In other words, Remnick says that the impression within Netanyahu's own party is that the 2009 speech in favor of a two-state solution was a bit of political appeasement for the White House, not actual policy.

Dani Dayan, who heads a group called Yesha Council that represents thousands of Israeli settlers, seems to have more complicated feelings about Netanyahu's interest in a two-state solution. In an interview with Remnick, Dayan expressed wariness, but a willingness to tentatively accept Netanyahu as an ally in the fight to keep Palestinians from ever having a state:

Now, at least, Netanyahu no longer makes any pretense of pursuing negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Dayan is confident that Netanyahu has sensed the movement to the hard right and will not combat it. But he is always on guard. “There are mornings when I wake up and think Netanyahu is serious about a two-state solution and others when I think he is bluffing the whole world,” Dayan told me. “And I suspect the same is true with Netanyahu.”

Dayan was recently the subject of an in-depth profile by the Atlantic's Zvika Krieger. In their interviews, the settlement leader said that he saw Netanyahu as "a moderate ally" in the settlers' mission but, as Krieger paraphrased, "not necessarily a true believer."

"I can't see a situation in which Bibi makes a strategic decision to go towards a unilateral move or an interim agreement with the Palestinians or something like that," he told Krieger. "But I cannot go to sleep and say, 'Okay, Bibi's all right, you can rest.' "

Dayan's sense of watching Netanyahu warily, suspecting he is opposed to a two-state solution but never quite knowing for sure, looking for clues one way or the other, seems to be a common feeling both in and outside of Israel. Whatever this election does to Netanyahu's coalition, if he remains prime minister, it will be interesting to see if that feeling persists.

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Max Fisher · January 22, 2013