On March 17, Israel returned to the polls for the second time in two years and re-elected Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in a late surge that defied all expectations.
Netanyahu’s victory was not without controversy. In particular, Netanyahu drew justified criticism for his insensitive choice of words on election day while rallying his base to vote, warning them that “Arabs” were flocking to the polls in “droves”.
It appears Netanyahu’s unacceptably worded exhortation was an ill-judged reaction to what he construed as a calculated strategy by foreign-funded NGOs to sway the election by increasing voter turnout in segments of the Israeli electorate most hostile to him.
While insisting that his intentions were never malicious and emphasising that he intends to be a prime minister who dutifully serves all Israelis, Netanyahu apologised to the Arab community, a necessary gesture that was both welcome and appropriate.
Widespread reports that Netanyahu had recanted his past support for a two-state resolution in the days before the election were a misrepresentation of a comment in a single pre-election interview. In context, it is clear he was saying he opposed establishing a Palestinian state “today” but not necessarily in the medium to long term.
As Netanyahu clarified to NBC on March 19, “I never retracted my speech at Bar-Ilan University six years ago calling for a demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises a Jewish state.”
Netanyahu explained that conditions simply aren’t currently favourable for the creation of a Palestinian state given the regional reality that Islamist extremists are rushing to fill the vacuum everywhere that political authority is shaky, while current Palestinian leaders are neither willing nor able to offer comprehensive peace in exchange for statehood.
What’s more, this post-election clarification is actually consistent with other interviews Netanyahu gave before the election – for instance, he made clear to the Times of Israel on March 13 that the goal of a two-state resolution “stands.”
Netanyahu’s pessimistic view of the current feasibility of a Palestinian state was echoed by the majority of Israeli voters. Palestinian statehood simply wasn’t an election issue. Not a single election commercial from any party – left-wing or otherwise – blamed Netanyahu for the absence of a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians, nor did any party promise to deliver one.
This was not because Israelis don’t want a two-state peace – most do – but because, like Netanyahu, they don’t believe it is a safe and realistic possibility in the short term.
In light of this, US President Barack Obama’s very pointed reaction to Netanyahu’s re-election and campaign comments was disturbing.
US Administration spokespersons quickly appeared before the press with prepared statements highly critical of Netanyahu. When President Obama called to congratulate Netanyahu, the White House made clear he also informed Netanyahu that “[the US] will need to reassess our options” regarding policy towards Israel.
In a press conference on March 24, Obama elaborated on this “reassessment”, saying, “We believe that two states is the best path forward for Israel’s security, for Palestinian aspirations and for regional stability. That is our view and that continues to be our view. And prime minister Netanyahu has a different approach.”
Yet Netanyahu’s explanations made it clear that in fact he does broadly share the US Administration’s approach, despite his trepidation about moving to implement it “today” given the current regional environment. Nonetheless, Administration spokespersons seem determined to assert that Netanyahu’s explanations mean nothing and that they are “taking him at his word” – with the only “word” that matters being that misrepresented statement from the pre-election interview.
The US Administration didn’t see the need to reassess when the Palestinians effectively broke off negotiations at the end of the Kerry peace initiative last year by unilaterally signing a unity agreement with Hamas, upgraded their status in the United Nations bodies in violation of the Oslo accords, and sought to join the International Criminal Court to demonise Israel.
Obama’s call for a “reassessment” would suggest that he is considering abandoning support for the path to peace created by United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which called for a land-for-peace formula based on direct negotiations between the parties.
Yet, any attempt to impose a Palestinian state without coordinating with Israel or securing commitments from the Palestinians rooted in a bilateral treaty would be reckless – likely to seriously court further conflict and cost lives.
The way forward is what Prime Minister Netanyahu hinted in his post-election statement, when he said that for a two-state resolution to come about, “circumstances have to change.” Now is the time for both countries to work together to change those circumstances – which moreover, is broadly consistent with President Obama’s post-election statement. The President said moving toward a Palestinian state was always understood to involve a “whole range of conditions and security requirements that might be phased in over a long period of time.”
For the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians, Obama should look for ways to work with Israel to move toward peace by creating those conditions – especially through bringing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, something Israel has already called for; strengthening PA governance; ending Palestinian incitement and ceasing to treat Palestinians as children not responsible for their actions; and by resolving the looming Iranian nuclear crisis in a way that makes Israelis feel more rather than less secure. The new Israeli government, for its part, should also be coming to Washington with concrete ideas to change the “circumstances” so realities can move toward two-state resolution more rapidly.
Sadly, both Netanyahu and Israeli voters appear to be right in assessing that current circumstances do not look propitious for creating a historic peace. Neither personal pique nor political impatience are good reasons to ignore that reality. Instead, the priority for all leaders of good will should be to diligently, creatively and cooperatively seek to incrementally improve that reality.