After a decisive victory for his Likud party in national elections on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be in a more conciliatory mode. In a number of interviews with American TV outlets, Netanyahu tried to dial back a statement made earlier this week in which he claimed that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch should he be reelected.
That message was a shock to some observers in Washington, where an embrace of a two-state solution for the Israelis and the Palestinians, approximately along 1967 boundaries, is an article of faith — no matter how a distant a prospect it may be in reality. As WorldViews has discussed on multiple occasions, Netanyahu's right-wing base seems to have little interest in allowing the creation of a separate Palestinian state; some of his chief political allies reject it outright.
Commentators claimed Netanyahu was "reversing" commitments he had made in the past, including at a high-profile speech at Jerusalem's Bar-Ilan University in 2009. Here's an excerpt of what he said at the time:
In my vision of peace, in this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other. These two realities - our connection to the land of Israel, and the Palestinian population living within it - have created deep divisions in Israeli society. But the truth is that we have much more that unites us than divides us.
In 2011, when addressing the U.S. Congress, he reiterated this sentiment:
We must also find a way to forge a lasting peace with the Palestinians. Two years ago, I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples: A Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state... The Palestinians share this small land with us. We seek a peace in which they will be neither Israel’s subjects nor its citizens. They should enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people in their own state. They should enjoy a prosperous economy, where their creativity and initiative can flourish.
Speaking to American media this week, Netanyahu insisted that he hasn't contradicted himself.
"I didn’t retract any of the things I said in my speech six years ago, calling for a solution in which a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes a Jewish state," he told Fox News channel's Megyn Kelly.
"I never changed my speech in Bar-Ilan University six years ago calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state," Netanyahu said in an interview with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell. "What has changed is the reality." (Both interviews were set to air in the United States on Thursday night.)
Except, judging from Netanyahu's 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, the reality — or at least Netanyahu's version of it — hasn't quite changed. Then, as in now, he inveighed against Palestinian refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state. Then, as now, he warned of the fundamental security threat posed by an independent Palestinian state — what he once referred to as "Hamastan" is now supposedly future terrain for the extremists of the Islamic State.
"I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution. But for that, circumstances have to change," Netanyahu told Mitchell.
Much to the chagrin of the White House, the peace process has collapsed while Netanyahu has been prime minister, a consequence in part of his allowing the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Some argue that, on this current trajectory, Netanyahu is leading Israel toward a deepening international isolation.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose raison d'etre is to negotiate a two-state solution with the Israelis, has already declared that he doesn't believe he has a partner in Israel's current government. The Palestinians intend to continue down the path of "internationalizing" their cause and will possibly take Israel to the International Criminal Court later this year. That's an escalation that will hardly soften Netanyahu's stance.
As head of an Israeli government, Netanyahu has to pay lip service to the prospect of a two-state solution when facing the international community. But as a politician seeking Israeli votes, he has a different agenda. Some say the scales fell off last summer during Israel's war with rocket-firing Hamas militants in Gaza when Netanyahu announced "that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan." In other words, he dismissed the Palestinians ever having genuine sovereignty in the West Bank.
The vast complexity of what two states would actually mean allows both sides to trot out competing talking points, observes Lawfare blog's Yishai Schwarz:
Debates of this sort—over whether Netanyahu or the Palestinian Authority is “truly” committed to a two-state solution–are unresolvable. But they are also misleadingly simplistic. “Two states for two peoples” is such a broad and nebulous vision that it allows for vastly different “true” commitments. Netanyahu is “truly” committed to the vision—assuming the vision includes a united Jerusalem under Israeli rule, Israeli retention of sizeable blocks over the ‘49 armistice lines, robust Israeli security measures and a credible cessation of Palestinian violence, incitement and claims on Israel. Similarly, Abbas is just as “truly” committed—but to a vastly different vision that likely includes none of these factors. Each is “serious;” they are just serious about different visions.
But there's real scrutiny now on the Israeli prime minister. Netanyahu's rhetoric led to his electoral victory this week, as his Likud party swept up voters who would have otherwise chosen smaller right-wing or ultra-nationalist parties. But it leaves him in an awkward spot on the world stage.
It's not clear how much backtracking can fix the diplomatic problems ahead.