Is Netanyahu Fighting Just Hamas or the Two-state Solution as Well?

If Abbas had declared that because of the Gaza War he no longer supports two states, American Jewish groups would have screamed with fury.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks following a meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini at the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 16, 2014.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks following a meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini at the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 16, 2014.Credit: AFP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

What is Israel fighting for?

Most Jews think the answer is clear: Israel is fighting to keep its people safe from rockets. Most Palestinians think the answer is clear too: Israel is fighting to maintain its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (According to the United States government, Israel still occupies Gaza despite withdrawing its settlers because it controls access to Gaza from air, sea, and—along with Egypt—land. If the United States controlled whether boats could dock, and planes could land, in Canada, we’d be occupying it even if no Americans lived there.)

A tremendous amount rides on how one views Israeli intentions. If Israel is only seeking to protect its people, then Hamas’ rocket fire really is - as Israeli spokespeople insist - the equivalent of Canada shelling the United States. Even if you acknowledge that the Canada-U.S. analogy is flawed because Israel occupies the West Bank and Gaza while America doesn’t occupy Quebec, it’s still possible to justify Israel’s behavior if you believe Israel wants that occupation to end. If, on the other hand, you believe that Israel desires permanent dominion over territories whose non-Jewish residents lack basic rights, then Israel’s behavior doesn’t look all that defensive. That doesn’t justify launching rockets into Israel. Hamas’ attempted murder of civilians is wrong, period, irrespective of Israel’s intentions. It is even more egregious because Hamas rejected a cease-fire, which Israel embraced. But as appalling as Hamas’ behavior has been, it’s hard to endorse Israel’s response if it is aimed not just at safeguarding its own people but at controlling another people as well.

Which is why Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments last Friday were so important. “There cannot be a situation, under any agreement,” he declared, “in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.” With those words, explained Times of Israel editor David Horovitz, a Netanyahu sympathizer, the Prime Minister was “insisting upon ongoing Israeli security oversight inside and at the borders of the West Bank. That sentence, quite simply, spells the end to the notion of Netanyahu consenting to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Publicly, at least, this is an earthquake. Until last Friday, Netanyahu was on record as supporting a Palestinian state. For five years, in fact, American Jewish leaders have insisted that he sincerely desires one. So what has changed on the ground to make Netanyahu change his mind? Nothing. Netanyahu now says he cannot relinquish control of the West Bank because Hamas could use it as a base from which to shell Israel, as it is now doing from Gaza. But that danger didn’t arise last week. Hamas has been shelling Israel, and refusing to recognize its right to exist, for a long time. The argument for the two state solution—which most top former Israeli security officials endorse - has always been that once Palestinians gained the rights and dignity that came with a state, their government would have a strong incentive to keep Hamas and other militants from imperiling that state by using it as a launching pad for attacks on Israel, as the governments of Egypt and Jordan have done in the decades since they signed peace deals. One can dispute this logic. But it is no less persuasive this week than it was last week. And last week, Netanyahu publicly supported a Palestinian state.

In reality, what has changed are not Netanyahu’s views but his willingness to publicly acknowledge them. Bibi is a man, after all, who in A Durable Peace, his major book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reissued in 2000, repeatedly compares a Palestinian state to the Nazi takeover of the Sudetenland. When elected prime minister in early 2009, he still publicly opposed a Palestinian state. And even when he supposedly embraced Palestinian statehood that June in a speech at Bar Ilan University, his own father told Israel television it was a ruse: “He doesn’t support [a Palestinian state]. He would support it under terms they [the Palestinians] would never accept.”

Netanyahu has made no effort to get his Likud Party to endorse Palestinian statehood nor did he try to prevent it from running a parliamentary slate in 2013 dominated by avowed two state opponents. He’s doubled funding for settlements. And according to the best reporting on John Kerry’s now-aborted peace effort, Netanyahu adamantly refused to discuss the boundaries of a Palestinian state while insisting, according to U.S. negotiators, that Israel’s “control of the West Bank would continue forever.” All of which is to say that Netanyahu’s statement last Friday, as Horovitz correctly observes, did not represent “a new, dramatic change of stance by the prime minister. It was a new, dramatic exposition of his long-held stance.”

Why is Netanyahu coming clean now? Because he can do so without risking a confrontation with the Obama administration, which has given up trying to broker a two state deal. For all those on the American Jewish right who claimed that Netanyahu would grow more willing to compromise once America ceased its diplomatic meddling and simply offered its unconditional support, the results are now in. Without American meddling, Netanyahu feels free to broadcast his rejection of the two-state solution to the world.

He’s also free to do so because he knows that the American Jewish establishment will not publicly challenge him. It’s extraordinary, when you think about it. Had Mahmoud Abbas declared that because of this week’s Gaza War he no longer supports the two state solution, American Jewish groups would have screamed with fury. But when Netanyahu does the same thing, they say nothing. As of Monday afternoon, in fact, not a single major American Jewish group had even commented on Netanyahu’s about-face.

What this silence proves is that for major American Jewish organizations, publicly supporting the two-state solution has little to do with actually achieving it. For the American Jewish mainstream, the real purpose of claiming to support Palestinian statehood is two-fold. First, it maintains the fiction that Israel’s almost half-century long control of the West Bank and Gaza is temporary, which allows American Jewish leaders to praise Israeli democracy without grappling with the fact that Israel controls millions of people who cannot vote for the state that dominates their lives. Second, it serves as a cudgel to wield against Palestinians. After all, were American Jewish groups to admit that neither they, nor Netanyahu, really support the two state solution, they would find it harder to brand Palestinian activists as anti-Semitic because they oppose the two-state solution too.

I’m not a pacifist. Although the images of Gaza’s dead sicken me, I could support this war if I believed it was aimed merely at safeguarding the right of Israelis to live free of terror. That’s why I found it easier to justify Ehud Olmert’s Gaza War in 2008. Because back then Israel had a prime minister who genuinely wanted to end its unjust, undemocratic dominion over millions of Palestinians. Today, by contrast, Israel’s prime minister wants to make that control permanent. And that means Israel’s missiles are instruments not only of self-defense, but also of conquest.

Netanyahu has now said as much himself. Even if our leaders won’t, American Jews must be prepared to listen.

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