Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett has been escalating his public confrontation with Benjamin Netanyahu, turning into the chief opponent of the prime minister’s policies. Bennett is apparently preparing for the day that his party is thrown out of the governing coalition and replaced by Zionist Union, and is seeking to position himself as the new leader of the right, by portraying Netanyahu as a leftist in nationalist disguise. Speaking at a rally marking Jerusalem Day on Tuesday, Bennett said, “You can’t be in favor of Eretz Yisrael in Hebrew, and set up the state of Palestine in English.”
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Netanyahu has indeed changed his public stance ever since he brought Avigdor Lieberman into the government as defense minister. On the eve of the elections, when he was courting the settler vote, he promised that no Palestinian state would be established during his term. Last week he repeated his support for the two-state solution and suggested conducting negotiations with the Arab states based on an “update” of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Through channels that are less direct and can be denied, like briefings by “close associates” and the article by his friend Natan Eshel in Haaretz over the weekend, Netanyahu sounded more explicit about a historic chance for peace.
One can identify several possible motives for the prime minister’s shift: international pressure to revive the diplomatic process, which is currently focused on the French peace initiative; fear of what U.S. President Barack Obama might do as his term in office winds down; the concern expressed by top military officers about Israel sliding into fascism, led by the radical right; the judicial rulings regarding his wife and the police recommendation to launch a criminal investigation against her; and the revelations of his friend, alleged fraudster Arnaud Mimran, that he had made a huge donation toward Netanyahu’s political activities, as revealed in a joint investigation by Haaretz and the French website Mediapart.
It could be that Netanyahu is just trying to ease the pressure on him from within and without, and believes that spouting out meaningless comments about peace while decorating his coalition with MKs from Zionist Union will satisfy his rivals enough to leave him alone. But if he’s serious, and really does see an opportunity to advance the two-state solution and plans to take advantage of it, he cannot make do with general statements and the launching of media trial balloons. He must present a diplomatic plan to the Israeli public that will clarify the extent of his willingness to realize the vision he described in his Bar-Ilan speech seven years ago. And he must do it in Hebrew, as his rival Bennett challenged him to do.
Netanyahu has until now refused to present a detailed peace initiative on the grounds that it would only encourage the Palestinians to demand additional concessions. That excuse is not persuasive and sounds evasive, just like his calls for “direct negotiations without preconditions” with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. If Netanyahu wants us to believe him, he must tell the public what he plans to do.