Every time a leader of the Israeli right seems to move toward peace by words or deeds, the “leftist’s dilemma” arises again: Do we believe him and support his policy, despite the damage he has caused domestically and, in the cases of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, despite the alleged corruption and investigations?
Underlying the dilemma is the recognition that it is easier for a right-wing prime minister to evacuate territories and settlements because the only resistance he must face is from the settler movement. Left-wing prime ministers face a much broader opposition, which includes Likud and its satellites as well as the ultra-Orthodox parties.
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This dilemma will arise again with regard to Netanyahu if he continues the line he presented Wednesday at a press briefing in New York after meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, who expressed clear support for the two-state solution.
There is no question that Netanyahu is the ultimate authority in Israel on issues of foreign affairs and security, and a decisive majority of the public would support any deal he could reach with the Palestinians. There is also no doubt that Netanyahu will not be able to oppose Trump’s peace plan the way he thwarted the initiatives of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
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Until now, however, at the moments of truth, Netanyahu has always preferred his right-wing and religious constituency, and resisted any substantive peace process.
If Netanyahu moves ahead toward an agreement, the leftist will ask himself: What is more important – the chances of resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, or at least mitigating it, or the coverage Netanyahu received on the Walla website before the 2015 elections? The realization of the two-state vision, or the champagne and cigars that the Netanyahus received from Arnon Milchan? Ending or limiting the occupation, or the chef’s meals at the Prime Minister’s Residence?
The answer is self-evident, and was formulated by Prof. Yehezkel Dror about a year ago, at the height of the reports about the investigations involving Netanyahu and the Saturday night demonstrations against corruption in Petah Tikva: “I recommend that Netanyahu do something historic that will dwarf his personal sins. He should propose a regional peace plan that includes a Palestinian state and an Israeli embassy in Riyadh. … When a political breakthrough is declared, one mustn’t examine the motives too carefully.” [Haaretz Hebrew edition, August 8, 2017.]
Netanyahu appeared the next day at a conference of Likud supporters at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds that was aimed at rebuffing the investigations, and he responded to Dror’s proposal dismissively. “I will have to disappoint the Haaretz newspaper, which this morning published an article that explicitly made me an ‘etrog’ offer – just withdraw from Judea and Samaria and we’ll leave you alone. So here is my answer: No thanks,” he said.
Has his position changed since then, because he understands that Trump is serious, or because in light of the leaks about suspicions that are coalescing into an indictment, he would prefer to face the bad stuff with broad political and public support behind him? Will he relinquish the partnership with Habayit Hayehudi and leave Naftali Bennett and his colleagues to whine about “a capitulation as deep as the investigation,” in return for a broad government to be formed after the next elections to advance the Trump plan, similar to the government he founded with Ehud Barak, Dan Meridor, Moshe Ya’alon and Benny Begin as a response to Obama in 2009?
Netanyahu’s remarks Wednesday leave his options open, as every leader prefers. He walked back toward his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, but did not go all the way there. He is still stuck at the Aluf Sadeh interchange, and was careful not to explicitly say the words “Palestinian state,” which might dissolve the coalition with Bennett prematurely. He will try to soften the wink to the left with promises to the right, like “We will prevent the entry of millions of refugees into the Palestinian state,” “The settlements will not be uprooted,” and so on. Labor Chairman Avi Gabbay, who vowed not to sit in a Netanyahu government after the elections, could still put off eating his hat by saying “the circumstances have changed.”
Moreover, Netanyahu’s proposed arrangement – a dwarf Palestinian entity that Israel controls from above, below and both sides – is very far from the Palestinians’ expectations, and even from the peace proposals of Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert that the Palestinians rejected in the past.
But he comes to the table with Trump behind him holding a large club that threatens the Palestinians: If you continue to be stubborn, you’ll have reason yet to miss the embassy’s move to Jerusalem and the budget cuts to UNRWA, because the next steps in crushing the Palestinian national movement will hurt even more.
Then, once again, the Israeli leftist will face a dilemma – whether to support the Trump-Netanyahu plan, with all its limitations, or to back the Palestinian resistance in the name of historic justice and the assessment that an unbalanced agreement will eventually collapse into a new wave of violence. This dilemma will be much more difficult than the one over Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000.