the national interest

Netanyahu: Don’t Listen to That Incredibly Explicit Thing I Promised About a Palestinian State

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 18, 2015, at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem following his party Likud's victory in Israel's general election.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

It was predictable that Benjamin Netanyahu would follow his preelection promise not to allow a Palestinian state during his term in office with a post-election walk-back. Netanyahu now says he didn’t mean he would never accede to a Palestinian state, only that it was not “achievable” at the moment.

Netanyahu’s supporters insist that he has not actually altered his position at all. “There’s simply no question Netanyahu was willfully and purposefully misunderstood late last week when hostile reporters announced he had withdrawn his support for a two-state solution,” argues John Podhoretz. “What’s happening here is not a reasonable U.S. reaction to what Netanyahu said, but an effort by Obama to find some excuse, any excuse, to change our policy toward Israel,” insists his brother-in-law and Bush administration veteran Elliott Abrams. It follows from this interpretation that the Obama administration’s alarmed reaction is not a response to Netanyahu candidly disavowing his openness to a two-state solution, but merely a pretext to legitimize Obama’s secret hatred of Israel.

A great deal of weight has come to be placed on the Talmudic parsing of a single Netanyahu interview. His supporters emphasize that Netanyahu only meant “today” when he declared, “I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel.” In fact, the interviewer followed this up by asking if Netanyahu would promise not to allow a Palestinian state for his entire four-year term, to which he replied, “Indeed.” So the only remaining question is whether Netanyahu opposes a Palestinian state for the entirety of his term in office, or whether he opposes such a state forever.

We are slicing the lox very thin here, but the distinction does have some meaning. There is a meaningful difference between circumstantial opposition to a Palestinian state and philosophical opposition. Netanyahu is not explicitly arguing, as many of his right-wing American supporters and Israeli coalition partners do, that Israel must maintain its occupation into perpetuity. Instead, he is making a version of the same objection he makes to an Iran nuclear deal — that his own negotiating strategy will somehow lead to a “better deal.” It is certainly true that the current Palestinian government does not present an ideal negotiating partner. But what evidence do we have that Netanyahu actually believes this, that he has some strategy to produce this better deal?

Netanyahu has argued against a Palestinian state for his entire political career. He currently opposes such a state on the grounds that it would be run by Hamas, but he opposed a Palestinian state in the 1990s on the grounds that it would be run by Fatah. Since Hamas and Fatah are the two major Palestinian parties, this does not seem to leave much room for a favorable negotiating climate. If Netanyahu is waiting to negotiate peace with a Palestinian government that has run on a Zionist platform, then his “not now” position is not meaningfully different from “never.”

Netanyahu was recently presented with the chance to negotiate with the most moderate leadership in Palestinian history. If you read Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon’s thoroughly reported account of the 2013 negotiations, it’s clear that Netanyahu bears at the very least a large share — I’d argue the vast majority — of the blame for the failure of the 2013 talks. His right-wing base is simply not willing to make the concessions necessary for any partition agreement, and Netanyahu is not willing to abandon his base.

Of course, Netanyahu’s supporters maintain that the 2013 negotiations failed on account of the Palestinians, who walked away from the table over such demands as Netanyahu refusing to stop building new settlements. Abrams objects to Obama’s complaint that Netanyahu is “expanding settlements” on the grounds that there’s been “a 52 percent drop in housing starts in the West Bank in 2014 versus 2013.” I invite readers to have their dog poop on Abrams’s lawn every day, and when he objects, reduce the frequency to every other day, and then await his gratitude.

Even this defense of Netanyahu’s intentions does not offer much of a defense. Assume for the sake of argument that Netanyahu sincerely wants partition, and he has thus far failed because every Palestinian leader, from Arafat to Abbas, was too militant to make the necessary compromises. Is the occupation making Palestinian political culture more friendly toward Israel? If four more years of the status quo is part of Netanyahu’s long-term plan to eventually bring about a two-state solution, what possible evidence is there that it can succeed?

Netanyahu: Don’t Listen to My Explicit Promise