Palestine’s Fluctuating Ratings

Even with Benjamin Netanyahu conveying conflicting messages about it, left-wing parties keeping mostly mum about it, the center-right not expressing a stance and Habayit Hayehudi firmly opposed - the ‘two states’ idea is not dead yet.

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas kisses a Palestinian flag before raising it at UN headquarters during the General Assembly in New York. September 30, 2015.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas kisses a Palestinian flag before raising it at UN headquarters during the General Assembly in New York. September 30, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

Last March’s Knesset election seemed to sign the death certificate of the “two-state solution,” the vision of dividing the land between Israel and a future Palestinian state. The parties and candidates in favor of the idea – even Meretz and the Joint Arab List – buried it deep in their platforms and didn’t speak of it during the campaign.


Opponents were more vocal: Two days before the election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that if he were reelected, there would be no Palestinian state. Right-wing voters lapped up the message and kept Likud in power, even though it had been lagging badly in the polls.

Palestine died on Election Day, but was subsequently resurrected with astounding speed. Right after his victory, Netanyahu hastened to shift direction, and explained in interviews with foreign media that he supports the two-state solution. He repeated this stance in his recent speech before the UN General Assembly, saying: “I remain committed to a vision of two states for two peoples, in which a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the Jewish State.”

The contradiction in Netanyahu’s positions – ostensible support for a Palestinian state, coupled with a promise that no such state will arise on his watch – is smaller than it appears. It reflects the position of a majority of Jewish Israelis, as witnessed by numerous polls conducted over the last 15 years, since the collapse of the Camp David Summit (which spelled the end of the Oslo process), have shown.

Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak summed up the failure by saying there was “no partner” on the Palestinian side, and this claim has remained at the heart of Israeli politics ever since. The Jewish majority supports the “two states” idea but doesn’t believe it can realistically be implemented, and pins the blame for this on the Palestinian leadership.

This stance allows the Israeli mainstream to feel good and see itself as desiring peace and willing to make concessions, without having to pay the price that such a deal would entail: evacuating settlers, an internal rift, the relinquishing of dreams. Blaming the other side absolves Israel of moral culpability for the continuation of the conflict, even as it builds settlements intended to thwart a potential division of the land, and as it forcibly oppresses Palestinians. We offered them everything and they turned it down, Barak assured the public, which embraced his message.

Eight years after Barak, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas an even more generous territorial proposal, and it too was turned down. At the time, the episode was overshadowed by Olmert’s mounting legal troubles, but after the fact it reinforced the “no partner” attitude.

Defense mechanism

Netanyahu adopted the “two states for two peoples” idea in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech as a defense against international pressure. He went ahead and uttered the words that U.S. President Barack Obama and his European friends were so eager to hear.

The booby-trap that Netanyahu planted in his proposal – in the form of the demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people – seemed like a surefire barrier against any practical discussion about dividing the land.

But this defense mechanism wasn’t enough to satisfy his Likud party, so Netanyahu did not venture to bring the Bar-Ilan formula up for discussion and approval in the cabinet or various party forums. In the last two election campaigns, Netanyahu refrained from publishing a Likud platform, thus circumventing the need to present a consensus party position.

The public perceived the Bar-Ilan speech and the moves that followed as a hollow ploy by the prime minister. A Peace Index poll conducted last March, following the election, found that only 13 percent of Jewish respondents believed that Netanyahu genuinely supports the idea of two states for two peoples (the answers of Arab respondents on this question were inconclusive).

Fifty-two percent, meanwhile, said Netanyahu does not support the idea, and no disparity was found among voters from different political parties in the assessment of the prime minister’s stance on the issue.

A review of the party platforms published prior to the election shows that support for a Palestinian state marks the dividing line between the Israeli left and right. From Yesh Atid leftward – to the Zionist Union, Meretz and the Joint Arab List – all openly support the idea, albeit with different conditions. From Kulanu rightward – to the ultra-Orthodox parties and Habayit Hayehudi – the parties refrain from making any specific mention of a Palestinian state. Habayit Hayehudi is opposed, while the rest are vague, at most supporting “diplomatic moves and preservation of settlement blocs” (Kulanu), “peace for peace” (Yisrael Beiteinu) or “the rabbis will decide” (United Torah Judaism).

Likud, which, as noted, did not publish a platform, is divided between the position of its leader, Netanyahu, which resembles the Zionist Union platform, and the position of a majority of the party’s ministers, which resembles that of Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett.

This ideological schism is reflected in actual politics. Netanyahu formed a rightist coalition that is largely opposed to a Palestinian state, but since the election has been wooing both Bennett and Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog – trying to entice the former into a party merger and the latter into a unity government. Nothing has come of either move so far, but Netanyahu’s zigzagging between the right and moderate left is yet another indication that he is wavering on this issue.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who wants to run for prime minister in the next election and has declared himself “ready for the job,” did not waver. On September 20, he went to Bar-Ilan University and delivered a speech in which he called for the adoption of the 2002 Saudi peace initiative and “the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel.”

Right-wing politicians savaged him, citing the sections of the Saudi initiative that call for an Israeli withdrawal from all of the territories, the division of Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees. Lapid backed his position by citing the usual argument made by the left – that a division of the land is necessary in order to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.

The conditions Lapid presented in his speech, such as Jerusalem remaining united and the Israel Defense Forces having full freedom of operation in the West Bank, are not acceptable to the Palestinians. But it doesn’t matter. The former finance minister currently heads a middling opposition party and is not overseeing peace negotiations.

Allure of two-state solution

His speech is important, though, in terms of how it plays in Israel’s domestic politics. Lapid was a weak finance minister and has yet to prove himself as a statesman, but he has a keen grasp of ratings. He built a brilliant journalistic, literary and political career out of deciphering the position of the mainstream, boiled down to the question he regularly posed as an interviewer: “What is ‘Israeli’ to you?”

Lapid’s speech indicates that he has identified the two-state idea, neatly wrapped within “the regional solution,” as a ratings magnet. No one forced him to nail his colors to this mast. If he considered the concept of a Palestinian state completely passé and unpopular, he would not have floated it again as the basis for his future run for the premiership.

Lapid is aiming to tap into the centrist Jewish electorate’s anxiety over the erosion of Israel’s legitimacy in the family of nations, or over the prospective loss of the nation’s Jewish majority and Israel becoming a binational state that more resembles its Arab neighbors.

Unlike Netanyahu, Lapid doesn’t need to concern himself with party approval, since he wields total control over his party and its institutions. Nor does he have anything to fear from his voters, who are not deterred by such positions.

The Yesh Atid leader has shown that the division idea is not dead and still holds more allure for the mainstream than the various one-state solutions touted by President Reuven Rivlin and extremists from both right and left.

And then the violent conflict erupted anew in October – in the form of a “terror wave” or “stabbing intifada” – and the Palestinian state was put back in the drawer. Netanyahu portrayed Abbas as an arch-inciter and the direct successor to Hitler’s “partner,” the mufti, even going so far as to pin responsibility for the Final Solution on the Palestinians and retroactively absolving the Nazis.

Lapid, perhaps inspired by his fondness for Hollywood movies, encouraged the (Jewish) public to shoot and kill “anyone who brandishes a knife or screwdriver.” Nobody asked him if, in the current circumstances, he still supports the Arab initiative and a division of the land.

In the autumn of 2015, it’s the Rambos, not the soft-spoken diplomats who are coming to the fore.

The experience of the two previous intifadas shows that if the Palestinians display endurance, they are capable of compelling Israel to change its policies. Because after the harsh measures of suppression (like “Break their bones”) that characterize the initial stages of a confrontation, Israel grows weary and opts for a political compromise.

The first intifada led to Oslo and the Palestinian Authority, and the second to the evacuation of Gush Katif. If the model repeats itself again this time, Palestine’s ratings will be topping the charts once more.

The writer is editor-in-chief of Haaretz.

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