"Shrinking the conflict" is the hot political Israel/Palestine mainstream merchandise of these times. 

As early as in his very first interview as prime minister-designate, back in June of this year, soon-to-be Israeli premier Naftali Bennett proclaimed that "shrinking the conflict" was his "philosophy" for managing the future of the Palestinians. 

In late August, the new PM brought that very merchandise to the White House in his first meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden: continued settlement growth for Israelis with no freedom, rights, or independence to Palestinians and certainly no negotiations; all the while, no formal annexation and better "quality of life" for obedient Palestinians. 

And this week, in his inaugural speech before the U.N. General Assembly, Bennett further shrunk the issue – to the point of not even mentioning it.

In an interview to the NY Times just days before his very first meeting as Prime Minister with President Biden, Bennett described his government as one of "finding the middle ground – how we [Israelis] can focus on what we agree upon." In that interview, Bennett brushed off the growing consensus articulated by PalestinianIsraeli, and international human rights groups, that Israeli policy – its "middle ground" – is apartheid.

Bennett’s visit to DC was deemed a success. Just days ago, in his first speech as president before the UN General Assembly, Biden said, apropos of a two-state solution: "We’re a long way from that goal." That’s the two state solution in which he purportedly continues to believe and which Bennett openly rejects. 

Towards the end of his UNGA remarks, Biden spoke movingly of the courage of people in Belarus, Burma, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, Sudan, Moldova, and Zambia, in fighting for democracy and human dignity. Somehow, in this part of his speech, Palestinians were erased. Indeed, they appear to be "a long way" from an American president daring to identify with their cause, their freedom and their fight for human dignity.

Israel’s longstanding model for successfully getting away with apartheid while suffering no international consequences was usually based on paying the required lip-service to "negotiations" and the never-ending "peace process," while carefully featuring an internationally digestible figurehead – think Shimon Peres under Ariel Sharon – to handle the marketing abroad. Even Netanyahu carefully followed this script: think his Bar Ilan speech, until Donald Trump entered the White House. 

But now, with Trump out of the White House (at least until 2024), it has become essential for Israel to recalibrate its image. After four years of open alignment with Trump – and with Trumpism – Israel needed a non-Netanyahu to distance itself from those toxic residues.

In this key sense, Israel’s political elites have skillfully weighed the clear benefits of having a non-Netanyahu as Prime Minister – even a former settler leader heading a most unusual coalition government – to better handle a Democratic president in the White House. 

What’s remarkable about this current state of affairs is that by merely not being led by Netanyahu, Israel manages to reboot its international image without any substantive change in policy. Its current non-Netanyahu PM doesn’t even need to spray around the good-old lip service – in fact he, most sincerely, openly states that there will be no negotiations and no Palestinian independence. 

How is that internationally digestible? Simply because Bennett is not Netanyahu.

Just as with the 2020 "crisis" regarding potential formal annexation, the concern here isn’t about meaningful policy, freedom, or human dignity. It’s just about appearances and deniability. 

Formal annexation was a red herring – Israel does as it pleases anywhere in the West Bank regardless – but if it were to go through formalization, it would have been a huge embarrassment for the EU (and for a non-Trump U.S. president) as it would expose the international unwillingness to hold Israel accountable.

Further, it would most publicly deflate the air out of the two-state solution balloon that the international community has been inflating with empty rhetoric for decades. 

Same goes with regards to a Netanyahu vs. a non-Netanyahu continuing to lead Israel’s apartheid rule over Palestinians: consider how much more politically complicated it would have been for President Biden to accept no-negotiations-more-settlements from a Prime Minister Netanyahu. But from a non-Netanyahu? Easy. 

The Israeli "middle ground" of millions of Palestinians – half of the people living under Israel’s control – enduring one form or another of subjugation, with only the Jewish half of the population having full rights (namely, apartheid) has thus got an extended lease on life. All that it took is to have a non-Netanyahu rebrand it as a philosophy of "shrinking the conflict."

And in reality, on the ground? Palestinians have for decades been witnessing – and fighting against – the actual shrinking of their lands, freedoms, and rights. They know all too well that "shrinking the conflict" – that is, allowing Israel to continue with its relentless policies against them as long as the theft of their lands isn’t formalized through official annexation – spells out the further shrinking of their world. 

Shrunk to what extent? Somewhere between the size of a Bantustan and a prison cell: obedient Palestinians could see their Bantustan allowed to economically improve; disobedient ones – Israel rejects any form of Palestinian opposition or protest – should expect facing measures ranging from being denied permits, to jail time, to being shot.

As settlements continue to expand and Palestinian homes continue to be demolished, as permanent infrastructure paving the way towards a million Israeli settlers in the West Bank is being built, as Gaza remains under blockade and Palestinians continue to be killed with impunity by Israeli security forces – "shrinking the conflict" are the magic words a non-Netanyahu prime minister of Israel needs to articulate in order for the international community to accept an ever-shrinking Palestine.

This rebranding of stale ideas now being regurgitated – think "economic peace" or "confidence building measures" – does provide policy makers in Western capitals with renewed deniability for what they are actually doing: continuing to back Israeli apartheid. But people of conscience will never unsee the concrete blocks, bars and walls that Israel imposes on half of the people between the river and the sea. 

Saving face for failed policies can only last that much longer, for – as President Biden himself told the U.N., "The future will belong to those who embrace human dignity, not trample it."

So far, when it comes to Palestine, Biden has forgone his own advice and his proclaimed values: That is most unfortunate. The Palestinians are paying the price.

But U.S. foreign policy need not remain on the wrong side of history forever. As Palestinian activists and allies are shifting the discourse in Washington and elsewhere, eventually policy will follow. 

It’s time to push further and faster, for the power of truth-telling will shrink lies, distortions, and excuses. Unshrinking Palestine is not only the future we must embrace: it is the future we can make reality.

Hagai El-Ad is the executive director of B’Tselem. Twitter: @HagaiElAd