On Tuesday afternoon, American media burst into an uproar at the news that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had apparently “revers[ed] his support for a two-solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The New York Times even sent out a midday news alert to subscribers’ phones. The idea that Netanyahu would change positions on such a central an issue on the day before elections is, to many Americans, shocking.
In Israel, however, the news was quickly overshadowed by the announcement that Tzipi Livni, Isaac Herzog’s partner at the head of the leading Zionist Union opposition party, had agreed to relinquish her spot in a potential Prime Ministerial “rotation.” The Prime Minister’s supposed pivot was big news, but it couldn’t actually hold the interest of the news cycle--and that’s for a simple reason: The “reversal” simply isn’t much of a reversal, and its relevance will be political rather than practical.
Netanyahu's incendiary statement came in response to questioning in an interview with the Israeli news site NRG. The interviewer opens by pointing out that many voters are vacillating between Netanyahu’s Likud party and the more right-wing Bayit Yehudi party of Naftali Bennett, and he asks whether Netanyahu--like Bennett--can guarantee that a Palestinian state will not be established on his watch. Netanyahu responds:
I think that anyone who establishes a Palestinian state today and evacuates land is giving territory to radical Islam from which it will attack the state of Israel. This is simply the reality that has been created in recent years. Anyone who ignores this is sticking his head in the sand. The left does this, sticking its head in the sand time and time again. We are realistic and understand.
Notice the reference to establishing a Palestinian state “today” and the emphasis on recent security challenges. Netanyahu is not saying he opposes the creation of a Palestinian state as a matter of principle, but as a matter of prudence. His opposition is contingent, linked to concrete and current security realities. Presumably, if these realities changed, so would Netanyahu’s position on practical statehood. For Netanyahu, this has always been the case. His vision of a Palestinian state has always been highly theoretical, requiring “rock solid” security arrangements that any conceivable Palestinian partner would have a very hard time accepting, or wouldn’t accept at all. And as radicalism in the region has intensified, Netanyahu’s rhetoric has made clear that these security demands have only expanded.
As a practical matter, Netanyahu’s statement therefore represents no change at all, and so most Israelis are simply not surprised. Netanyahu was simply making explicit what has been his implicit (but obvious) position for some time: Islamic radicalism affects (and severely decreases) the practical possibility of imminent Palestinian statehood.
And the painful reality is that Netanyahu’s evaluation is likely accurate, regardless of who is Israel’s next prime minister. The current security situation probably does mean that Israel---even under the leadership of a committed peacenik like Isaac Herzog---can offer fewer concessions than it might have a few years ago. And even then, far-reaching concessions from Israel’s last two leftist prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert proved inadequate for Palestinian demands. So if Israeli interests pre-ISIS and regional instability precluded an offer that Abbas could accept, it is difficult to imagine a more successful offer today. Hence, the low rates---even on the left---of anyone who thinks Palestinian statehood is imminent.
But even if Netanyahu’s statement means little in terms of policy, where it does matter is the realm of optics: both for election politics and post-election diplomacy.
As an electioneering tactic, the definitive rejection of Palestinian statehood was probably a good play. The vast majority of those committed to a more accommodating stance on the Palestinian issue or concerned about Bibi’s alienation of allies have long since deserted him. The center and left boast enough parties that these voters had ample choice, and so Netanyahu understood that this statement will not lose him many votes on the left. At the same time, Netanyahu rightly realizes that many of Bayit Yehudi’s voters are currently experiencing a real conflict: on the one hand, they identify with Naftali Bennett’s hard-right message and distrust Netanyahu for his centrist tendencies (like his endorsement of a theoretical Palestinian state). But these voters are also sincerely worried that if Netanyahu finishes the elections behind Herzog, Herzog may lead the next government. These voters are teetering on the edge of voting for Netanyahu’s Likud party but need reassurance that he won’t suddenly tack toward the center. Today’s statement against Palestinian statehood provides that reassurance---and so Netanyahu can reasonably expect a bump in his numbers as strategic thinkers shift from Bayit Yehudi to his Likud party.
For Israel, however, Netanyahu’s incendiary interview is a diplomatic disaster. Israel’s supporters have long pointed to Netanyahu’s “Bar Ilan speech” (where he embraced the principle of two states for two peoples) as proof that even Israeli right-wing governments are committed to peace---and that the impediment to progress is truly Palestinian intransigence. Netanyahu’s unambiguous declaration that a Palestinian state will not be established on his watch is a body-blow to that argument. The distinction between support in principle and contingent, practical opposition may interest philosophers, but not diplomats. And if Netanyahu is reelected, the international community will see Israel as the barrier to peace, and the country can expect to be engulfed in a diplomatic tsunami. Palestine will be recognized in foreign states and international bodies, and economic and diplomatic pressure on Israel will deepen dramatically.
The tragedy is that Netanyahu surely knew this. He knew the national costs, and yet chose to put his personal interests first. If he is reelected, his country will reap the whirlwind.