Analysis

The Two Words Netanyahu Is Afraid to Repeat Out Loud

When it comes to a future Palestinian state, Netanyahu is being pulled by Trump on one side, and by hardliner Naftali Bennett on the other

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the United Nations headquarters in New York, U.S., September 26, 2018
William Volcov / Brazil Photo Pr

NEW YORK - It has been more than nine years since Netanyahu announced that "if we get a guarantee of demilitarization" and "ironclad security provisions, we will be prepared to reach agreements for a demilitarized Palestine, side by side with the Jewish state." He was saying this "in a clear voice," he declared from a podium at Bar Ilan University.

Since then, the prime minister has done everything in his power to avoid any such explicit statement on a "Palestinian state," especially in Hebrew.

But in English, he has repeated an identical position in principle in various places around the world. If Israel maintained security control, he would be ready to negotiate the establishment of a "Palestinian state minus" – a demilitarized state.

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Now that President Trump has announced that the two-state solution is his preferred solution after all, after his previous, unripe flirtations with "one or two states, whatever the sides want," Netanyahu is now forced to explain this position again.

This position sounds amazingly similar to the one from the Bar Ilan speech, with one significant difference: a serious acrobatic twist to avoid explicitly repeating, heaven forbid, that loathsome word "state," although that is exactly what he is saying.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a bilateral meeting during the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
\ CARLOS BARRIA/ REUTERS

"I'm prepared for the Palestinians to have the authorities to govern themselves without the authority to hurt us." A demilitarized state.

Netanyahu explained at the time at Bar Ilan: "If we could agree on the substance, then the terminology would not pose a problem." But the terminology is undoubtedly a difficult problem in 2018 Israel. A political problem spearheaded by Naftali Bennett, who is relentlessly flanking Netanyahu from the right. So, like in a children's game in which certain words are forbidden, Netanyahu is now explaining that "everyone defines the term state differently" and says he "doesn't deal with terms but with substance."

He also jabs at Bennett, who said he wouldn't be in a government in which there's a Palestinian state, which is a "disaster to Israel." Netanyahu stresses with a cynical smile: "So I promise there won't be a Palestinian state that would be a disaster to Israel." That is, not that there won't be a state but that it wouldn't be a disaster.

Like his efforts to avoid definitions, Netanyahu is avoiding a description of his own aspirations regarding the issue. He prefers setting red lines – Israeli control west of Jordan – to leading processes. Instead of leading, he's being led - by Trump on the one hand and Bennett on the other.

The tragic result is that, for years, we've been stuck in the "as if" game, in which everyone circles round and round the same solution with or without calling it by name.

The two-state solution that consists of setting up a demilitarized Palestinian state is in fact accepted by an extremely broad political spectrum in Israel and the world. In countless agreements and negotiations even the Palestinians themselves have already agreed to it, certainly as a first step to independence and usually as part of five-year plan at least.

Anyone who sees himself now as an alternative to Netanyahu – especially from the center leftward, because to the right of Netanyahu, the voices backing annexation prevail – is actually repeating Netanyahu's message in different words.  

So if what's really important is the substance and not the definitions, then it's time to stop playing "as if" and put the truth on the table: Netanyahu never changed his position that the reasonable solution is a demilitarized Palestinian state. A state-minus – which is really a state minus calling it a state. The world supports it. The Palestinians don't negate it. Perhaps Trump will soon call a spade a spade.