Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s speech on Sunday evening puts him squarely within the mainstream of Israeli opinion regarding negotiations with the Palestinians. In the past Netanyahu had often positioned himself far on the right of Israel’s political spectrum—depending on his needs of the moment. He ran for the Likud leadership and for the premiership in 1996 from the right. He then behaved as a centrist by Likud standards as prime minister.
After losing power in 1999 to Ehud Barak, he then returned to the right when he returned to politics. He served as Sharon’s finance minister as a neo-liberal monetarist and was very critical of Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza, although he refrained at the last moment from openly challenging Sharon over it. Since Sharon and Ehud Olmert left the Likud for Kadima in November 2005, Netanyahu has once more been in charge in the Likud.
While running for election earlier this year, he dropped hints that he would be a very different prime minister his second time around because of lessons learned from his first time. He claimed that he would form a centrist coalition rather than a right-wing one, as he wanted stability. But he was unwilling to pay the price for a coalition with Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party. Kadima received one more seat than the Likud did, and Tzipi thought that this entitled her to a rotation of the leadership as in the 1984-88 National Unity Government when Peres and Shamir switched places. Netanyahu obviously did not agree.
After refusing initially to utter the magic words, Netanyahu has now agreed to “two states for two peoples.” He did put conditions on them, however. First, he stated that an undivided Jerusalem would remain Israel’s capital. This restores the Israeli position before July 2000—which was really restored once Barak left office in February 2001. Second, he pronounced that the state must be demilitarized—meaning only small arms for its police as is the situation today with the Palestinian Authority. This is the position of Labor as well. De facto, Israel’s main parties have always said that Palestine would be a state with severe limitations. Third, Netanyahu demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Yitzhak Rabin, Labor’s first prime minister during the Oslo process, did not even indicate that a Palestinian state would be the outcome of negotiations with the Palestinians. His foreign minister and successor, Shimon Peres, was a little more forthcoming, but it still was not Labor’s position in the 1996 campaign that the outcome of negotiations would be a Palestinian state. Only with Barak in 1999 did this change. Netanyahu is in essence returning to the status quo ante Barak.
The demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is problematic for two reasons. First, it wants the Palestinians to concede the right of return before negotiations begin. Second, Israel’s Palestinian leadership rejects this condition. Even if the Palestinians recognize the reality that no Zionist party will agree to a major return of refugees that would have the potential to drastically alter the demographic balance within Israel, no Palestinian leader could openly betray their Palestinian brethen before negotiations begin. In reality Netanyahu’s conditions and the Palestinian rejection of them are opening positions subject to change in a future negotiation.
But in reality neither Netanyahu nor Abbas is eager to begin negotiations for a Palestinian state. Such negotiations would likely lead to either a collapse of Netanyahu’s government or a quick collapse of the negotiations with Israel being blamed. Mahmoud Abbas cannot agree to make major concessions with Hamas contesting the legitimacy of his position as Palestinian president and his right to make such concessions. So both are content to posture and blame the other side for the lack of progress.
In reality Netanyahu now puts some pressure on the Palestinians, allows Obama to begin rallying the Arabs to deal with Iran, and possibly in the future allows for a shift away from the Palestinian track to the Syrian track. But with the questionable election in Iran, the focus will now shift in the Middle East back to Iran.
Thomas Mitchell, Ph.D., is an independent scholar on Israel-Palestine and other subjects of ethnic conflict and peace making, who occasionally contributes his analyses to this blog.