Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been widely criticised for agreeing, in an interview prior to last year’s election, with a reporter who asked him to confirm that a Palestinian state would not be created in his next term.
Netanyahu’s reply was immediately seized upon by critics who claimed it proved he no longer supported a two-state outcome, but this claim wasn’t true. Netanyahu explained repeatedly that the conditions necessary to create a Palestinian state in a way that would not jeopardise Israel’s basic security simply aren’t there today.
It would no doubt come as a surprise to those determined to see Netanyahu as particularly intransigent that both the leader of Israel’s centre-left opposition, Isaac Herzog, and Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, recently expressed similar sentiments.
At a joint press conference with Netanyahu on February 16, Merkel said, “Now is certainly not the time to make really comprehensive progress, but you can achieve improvements in certain places.” She continued, “The European Union, and Germany as a member state, is very concerned about seeing things realistically.”
It is a great pity that those both in Europe and closer to home who are demanding the premature recognition of a Palestinian state don’t share her insight. (They also seem to think that threatening to give the Palestinians what they want if talks don’t succeed will do something other than encourage Palestinian rejectionism.)
Earlier, in a meeting with French President François Hollande in Paris on January 22, Herzog, the leader of Israel’s Labor successor, the Zionist Union party, unveiled a new policy essentially endorsing Netanyahu’s assessment of the impossibility of safely creating a Palestinian state in the short term.
Herzog told Hollande that he continues to be “a huge advocate of the two-state vision, but we have to be realistic. It can’t take place now. The hatred and incitement among the Palestinians is too great, the animosity between the peoples and the inability of the leaders to prevent it.”
As Herzog told Israeli journalist Mazal Mu’alem in an interview: “I met with Abbas last August and there, too, I am sorry to report, I didn’t find the courage or leadership skills needed to agree to painful concessions. With whom will we reach an agreement on a two-state solution?” He continued, “Right now, Abbas represents only part of the Palestinians. What about Gaza?”
Highlighting Herzog’s point about the lack of a credible and willing partner for a two-state deal was Palestinian Authority (PA) Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, who stated unequivocally at a media conference on Feb. 15 in Japan, “We will never go back and sit again in a direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.”
Herzog’s larger plan for unilateral Israeli action to preserve the two-state option for the future was adopted by his party at its conference on Feb. 7.
While Israel would retain security control over the West Bank, significant changes he proposes include increasing areas under Palestinian administrative control and areas where Palestinians could build homes and freezing Israeli construction in settlements beyond the settlement blocs it is assumed Israel will keep.
In numerous remarks about the new policy, Herzog spoke of accepting current “realities” vis-à-vis the Palestinians, particularly in light of the wave of attacks perpetrated by Palestinians against Israelis in recent months.
Israelis by now are familiar with these realities, which include incitement by Palestinian Authority officials, and a continued refusal to even talk, despite an open invitation from Netanyahu – and now statements that they will “never” do so.
Herzog’s plan may seem reminiscent in some ways to the “disengagement” plans that were partially implemented by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon just over a decade ago when faced with continued Palestinian rejectionism in the aftermath of the Second Intifada.
At that time, Israel withdrew its army from Gaza and uprooted all of its settlements there, displacing 8,000 Israelis. The withdrawal has widely been seen by Israelis as a failure in terms of security, due to the constant attacks emanating from Gaza since.
Herzog says that his plan will be different: “We have learned the lessons of [Sharon’s] disengagement from Gaza; the IDF will remain [in the West Bank] and not move,” he told the Labor party conference.
Yet here in Australia, the media has all but ignored the story of the Labor shift.
While the worthiness of the details of Herzog’s plan is a matter of debate, it is significant that it confirms the emergence of a key consensus in Israeli politics – shared by Merkel – regarding the Palestinians.
Namely, a Palestinian state cannot be safely created under the current climate in the Middle East, but that the foundation for a two-state outcome must be preserved for such a time when it can be implemented.
There is every reason to believe that the Netanyahu Government is also working in its own way for the same goal through its long-standing policy of pursuing “economic peace.” Contrary to much hysterical and factually-baseless nonsense published in the media about settlements, even the fiercely critical Haaretz recently confirmed that not only has the government enforced an unannounced 18-month moratorium on all new permits for construction in settlements, but that “since Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, there has been less construction activity in the settlements than under any other prime minister since 1995.” Further, through removing many roadblocks, check points, and other barriers to economic activity, and attempting, despite pressure from the right, to minimise the effects on ordinary Palestinians of security measures necessitated by the current round of terrorist violence, the Netanyahu Government seems determined to help preserve the fundamentals for future Palestinian statehood.
Ultimately, a two state resolution remains the only realistic route to a lasting peace, but those pushing for this to happen immediately need to consider the more realistic approach of Netanyahu, Herzog and Merkel. In advancing premature actions, such as unilateral recognition, they are doing far more harm than good.
This article is featured in this month’s Australia/Israel Review, which can be downloaded as a free App: see here for more details.