Netanyahu's Latest "Reversal" on Palestinian Statehood

By Yishai Schwartz
Thursday, March 19, 2015, 6:26 PM

Earlier today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat down with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, and explained that he hadn’t changed his policy on the creation of a Palestinian state. “I don't want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution,” he insisted. For the second time in three days, the American media went into conniptions. The Wall Street Journal’s lead headline announcing “Netanyahu reverses vow to oppose Palestinian statehood” is representative of top stories in the Times, Post and pretty much every other major outlet.

Together, these headlines weave a narrative of flip-flopping that is quickly becoming conventional wisdom: Three days ago, in a last-minute bid to win voters right-wing voter, Netanyahu publicly “repudiated” the two-state vision to which he committed himself in a 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University. (At the time, the speech was a landmark event: the first time a Likud Prime Minister had publicly embraced Palestinian statehood.) And now, just days after winning those votes (and reelection) he publicly reverts back to his Bar Ilan vision. The zigzag narrative is a convenient one for those who loathe Netanyahu. The loathing may be understandable, but the narrative happens to be wrong.

As I explained two days ago, on the morning of the elections, Netanyahu’s statement on Palestinian statehood was carefully crafted as an evaluation of current conditions, not a “vow” or a statement of policy. Asked whether he could say that if elected, “a Palestinian state will not be established,” Netanyahu responded by warning that current security realities made the creation of a Palestinian state “today” unrealistic. Pushed again to answer directly on whether “if you are elected Prime Minister, a Palestinian state will not be established,” he considered for a moment, before tentatively answering “right.” As you watch the interview, you can almost see the wheels turning in his mind as he reasons to himself: “I wasn’t asked whether I want, or will work toward, a Palestinian state; I was asked for a prediction--and my prediction is it won’t happen.”  As I wrote then:

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… 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.

There is no question that Netanyahu was speaking in two different registers to two different audiences. To arouse the Israeli far-right, he emphasized the current dangers of a hasty rush toward Palestinian statehood, and predicted that such a state would not be established imminently. And to placate an international audience, he emphasized that his goal and policy remains working toward a Palestinian state. These statements are not mutually exclusive.

But technical consistency aside, Netanyahu’s pre-election statement still deserves a busload of criticism (though not as much criticism as his egregious election-day dog-whistle): it was highly cynical, self-centered and deeply damaging to Israel. He knew his words would be interpreted (or used) as a reversal by the international media, but decided the price in international condemnation of Israel was worth his own possible electoral gain. That’s inexcusable. Nevertheless, neither that statement nor today’s constitutes a “reversal” of the fundamental Bar Ilan approach.

Of course, it remains possible that Netanyahu’s (consistent) position on Palestinian statehood is entirely disingenuous. Perhaps, deep down, Netanyahu actually opposes the creation of a state of Palestine and merely adopts the rhetorical position of favoring such a state for diplomatic reasons. This belief, no doubt, is what drives so much of the invective currently being hurled at Netanyahu, including State Department’s spokeswoman Jen Psaki’s ongoing insistence that “we believe he changed his position three days ago.” After all, if you believe Netanyahu has never been “serious” about Palestinian statehood, then characterizing his statement from a few days ago as a “reversal” is highly convenient.

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.

So when a commentator labels one side “unserious” or “lacking commitment,” what she really means is that she prefers the other’s side’s vision. That preference, of course, is the commentator’s right. But inventing inconsistency and alleging dishonesty to bolster that caricature of unseriousness is a bridge too far.