Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced this week that he favors unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. But who will ultimately determine when and where—and if—the Palestinians are to be granted a state?
Prime Minister Netanyahu recently formed a coalition with the Kadima party’s Shaul Mofaz. Netanyahu and Mofaz now control the most Knesset seats in Israeli history (as many as 98 of a total 120). Barak’s statement, however, is unlikely to factor into the calculus of this government, one that talks very little about a two-state solution.
The Likud Party Platform unreservedly rejects the notion of a Palestinian state. It declares the Jordan River to be the permanent eastern border of Israel, that Jerusalem can never be divided, and rejects any Palestinian state West of the Jordan. Moreover, it defines the settlements as a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. While the platform it certainly discouraging, it would be naïve to believe any party will inflexibly remain true to its platform.
The often referenced Bar Ilan University speech of Netanyahu in 2009 purportedly supports a Palestinian state. Much of the West gave him plaudits for this concession. One paragraph addresses the rights of the Palestinians to have a flag, anthem and government. But such things do not create a State with political and civil rights. Many countries have semi-autonomous regions, faintly resembling a state. Though the speech does refer to a Palestinian state several times, it is with conditionality that defies any realistic chance of a peaceful solution. Mr. Netanyahu perhaps convinced the international community to believe that he condoned a two state solution, but the actual words suffer under scrutiny. Benzion Netanyahu, the recently deceased father of Binyamin, even gave a post-speech press conference denying his son advocated a Palestinian state; at least one the Palestinians could possibly accept.
“A Durable Peace," a book authored by Netanyahu in 1993 and electronically republished in 2009, argues passionately against two states, both for reasons of defense and biblical authority for Israel extending eastward to the Jordan River. (One might contemplate other ramifications if our Bible trumps modern day constitutions and laws, including the right to own slaves and smite those that work on the Sabbath.) Recounting countless centuries of persecution of the Jews in the book, Netanyahu implies that these wrongs, especially driving the Jews from Israel, justify driving the Arabs from their land today.
Repeatedly, the current Israeli government has blamed its inflexibility regarding matters of peace on its fragile coalition with several right wing parties in the Knesset. Behold, a transformation has occurred. Likud’s need for parties like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beintenu and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party has considerably lessened. With the Kadima coalition, Netanyahu could successfully support an agreement his right wing supporters might abhor.
But the addition of Mofaz to Netanyahu's government is unlikely to radically improve chances for peace. As Gideon Levy points out, Mofaz has never been a leader with bold ideas on the Palestinian questions, unless you count "targeted killings," which he pioneered as defense minister. And Palestinians don't seem particularly enthused about the prospects for resumed negotiations: Ynet reported a senior Palestinian official as saying, ""I hope that the political change will bring a breakthrough, but I'm not entirely sure it will... The peace process is stuck because Netanyahu never really wanted to promote it." Finally, given that Kadima's political prospects are rapidly sinking—it survived for years on Ariel Sharon's personal appeal, and is largely made up of former Likudniks anyway—it's not clear how much influence Mofaz exerts on Netanyahu at all. The basic question is still Netanyahu’s intentions.
Netanyahu’s now unprecedented power allows him to contour coalitions both to the left and the right in the Knesset. He can bring about two states living in peace and security, or continue the drift into the morass of an unsustainable occupation. More than ever, the choice is his. Come clean, Mr. Prime Minister. What is your vision of the future?