October 8, 2011


Will the Real Benjamin Netanyahu Please Stand Up?: Despite all avowals to the contrary, Bibi's never wanted peace with Palestine. And he may well have created an Israel that now agrees with him. (DANIEL LEVY, OCTOBER 7, 2011, Foreign Policy)

Israel's leadership decisions historically have combined a singular, sometimes ruthless insistence on securing a Jewish state with an ability to make pragmatic compromises -- the two sometimes being in synergy and sometimes being at odds. Israel's leaders accepted the 1947 U.N. partition plan but then secured a much greater portion of Palestine than the United Nations had granted and expelled much of the Palestinian population in the ensuing war. Israel's leaders captured the Egyptian Sinai in the late 1960s and spent a decade building civilian and military outposts there only to evacuate the area a little over a decade later. When the Arab world was out of bounds for Israel, its leaders pursued a regional strategy based on an alliance with the non-Arab states of the periphery -- Turkey, Iran, and Ethiopia -- and ultimately offset its regional isolation by enmeshing Israel into the structures of U.S. Cold War alliances. As the region changed, however, Israel established links to fellow members of the Pax Americana among the authoritarian but so-called "moderate" Arab regimes, like Egypt and Jordan -- and more discreetly, parts of the Gulf.

Pragmatic Zionism in practice may have offered little comfort to the dispossessed Palestinians of 1948 and insufficient democracy to Israel's own Palestinian Arab citizens (about 20 percent of the country's population), but it did focus on thickening the thin sheet of ice upon which Israel's future in the region was predicated. The Oslo process, started in 1993, would not address core Palestinian grievances or offer real justice, but it would fit neatly within that pragmatic tradition of thickening the ice, holding out the promise of at least an end to the occupation of the lands beyond the 1967 lines (or the vast majority of those lands) and of something recognizably approximating sovereign Palestinian statehood.

Netanyahu's project for Israel, over the course of his political leadership, can be best understood as taking a pickax to those layers of stability and bringing something new in their place. Netanyahu patiently went about the work of unraveling the core aspects of Oslo that were not to his liking. He created a new peace discourse, one ostensibly reasonable and certainly accessible to the Western ear -- but one also ultimately incompatible with the pragmatic compromise that Oslo might have set in motion.

The Netanyahu peace dictionary -- that peace required reciprocity, that Palestinians would have to give if they were to get, that only unmediated, direct negotiations were admissible in the court of peacemaking -- all created a false parallel between an occupying power and an occupied people and succeeded in draining the peace effort both substantively and procedurally of any vitality or chance of success. Having ostensibly bought into this bargain and made itself dependent on Israeli (and U.S.) goodwill, the PLO-Fatah leadership unsurprisingly lost credibility as the years of "peace-processing" dragged on -- with no seeming cost to Israel.

The major shift in Netanyahu's position between his first and second terms is highly instructive. Having rejected the idea of a Palestinian state previously, he now embraces the notion with a passion bordering on that of a convert. (In his U.N. speech in September, he noted that in peace Israel would be the first country to recognize a Palestinian state.) Yet his idea of what Palestinian statehood would entail is exactly the same as his previous vision for Palestinian autonomy, the only difference being his recognition that it makes more sense to say that if the Palestinians are willing to call this bantustanization statehood, then why on Earth should Israel oppose it?

In 1997, Netanyahu spoke of the Palestinians having the "most generous self-government." And later that year he talked of "a self-governing entity, offering them maximum self-government in the areas that will be under their control in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza." When addressing the United Nations during his first term in 1998, Netanyahu suggested that already "98 percent of the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria ... are now living under Palestinian rule ... their own flag, their own executive.... It can no longer be claimed that the Palestinians are occupied by Israel. We do not govern their lives." Eleven years later, at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, Netanyahu said, "Each [state] will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government." He only neglected to mention that only one would have anything resembling sovereignty. It is worth remembering that 60 percent of the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem are strictly out of bounds for this Palestinian self-governing entity.

Other than allowing the Palestinians to apply the label "state" to their prospective West Bank archipelago of limited self-governing islands, Netanyahu has pivoted in one other area from a decade ago. He has now made Palestine's acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state a precondition for any movement. In so doing Netanyahu is castrating the old Oslo peace process of any last vestiges of potency. Intriguingly, he is also perhaps establishing a more honest Israeli-Palestinian playing field. Addressing the Knesset in this May just prior to his departure for Washington, Netanyahu asserted: "It is not a conflict over 1967, but over 1948."

Oslo was an attempt to subsume the weighty issues of Israel's creation, Israel's ethnocratic character, and Palestinian dispossession, and emphasize a resolution of issues arising from the 1967 occupation. Despite U.S., Quartet (EU-Russian-U.N.-U.S.), and other attempts to force the conflict back into that 1967 box, Netanyahu has probably drawn a line under a certain 1967-centric period in Israeli-Palestinian history. As Ahmad Khalidi, a Palestinian academic and occasional policy advisor to the PLO, explains in compelling detail in a recent Journal of Palestine Studies piece, acceptance of Zionism and the Jewish state is not "the Palestinian Arab narrative, nor can it be." It would require the Palestinians to not only embrace their own dispossession but also accept the other side's appropriation of "the rights of those who reside in the territory ... their very history and identity, their relationship to the land, and by extension their rights, future, and fate as well." Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh has similarly eviscerated Bibi's "Jewish state" recognition demand.

Netanyahu's father, Benzion, a renowned historian of the right, rejected partition in the middle of the last century. His son Benjamin is rejecting partition for this century and setting up a winner-take-all struggle. There is no Palestinian state or two-state solution along the lines proposed by Netanyahu -- in which Israel retains all of Greater Jerusalem, much of the West Bank, and an IDF presence in "Palestinian areas," and in which only one historical narrative guides future "coexistence."
Once Hamas and Fatah abandoned terrorism it removed the political pressure on the Israeli leadership to concede statehood.  Ariel Sharon subsequently pursued a two-state solution because he understood the single state to be an existential threat.  Others don't see the future similarly or lack the power to act unilaterally to try and avoid it.

Posted by at October 8, 2011 7:44 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus