November 16, 2018

Netanyahu’s Tactical Mistake

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a major tactical blunder when he pushed through the vote in the Likud Party central committee to the effect that they would no longer discuss or consider the future establishment of a Palestinian state as a means to resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Not only did he lose public support inside Israel, not only did he lose the international image he has taken so long to build up in the foreign news media, especially in the United States, but more important than all that, he tried to force his party into adopting a policy that is passé. The decision of the Likud Party was, to put it simply, meaningless.

Veteran hawk, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, had no problem opposing the Netanyahu proposal, even if it clashes with his own long-term ideological position on the issue of a Palestinian state. Sharon has, since coming to power, mentioned the future establishment of such a state — even if his version of such a state is unlikely to be accepted by the Palestinians because it probably falls far short of their expectations — because everyone knows that, if and when this conflict is ever to be resolved, it will only be through complete physical separation between the two peoples and their respective territories — the two-state solution.

The two-state solution has become accepted by all — the international community, the Palestinians and the vast majority of Israelis — precisely because it is a realistic solution to the conflict. People are gradually moving away from the radical ideological positions they have held for so long and are coalescing around a centrist position based on realism. Fewer people today believe that Israel can, or should, continue to control three million Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, regardless or not of whether they believe that this is part of a Greater Israel promised to their forefathers by God many thousands of years ago. Equally, fewer people believe that a single binational democratic state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean is a feasible possibility in today’s political climate, even if they truly believe that this is the only just solution to the conflict.

The return to violence and terrorism during the past 18 months has brought more and more people to understand that the only way forward to some sort of future regional stability is for ultimate separation between the two peoples into their own states, within each of which the respective governments will be responsible for their own affairs, maintaining law and order and ensuring that the “other” state is not, nor does it feel, threatened by activities taking place beyond the border.

Ten years ago, one couldn’t even talk about the idea of a Palestinian state amongst Israelis. But this is just one more of those issues that has been taboo in the past, and which has gradually become part of the public discourse as a result of the changing events within the region. Fifteen years ago, most Israelis couldn’t even think about the possibility of directly negotiating with, or talking to, the Palestinian representatives, and now it is second nature for many Israelis. Five years ago it was still taboo to even suggest that the issues of Jerusalem or refugee return could be discussed as negotiable topics, and yet they have all been firmly placed as part of the public discourse, despite the problematic and sensitive nature of these highly symbolic issues. The most recent taboo to bite the dust concerns the active role to be played by international peace-keeping forces if, and when, a new agreement is implemented on the ground. Public surveys show that Israelis are increasingly supporting the role of strong third-party intervention, whereas in the past, they would never have accepted such a move.

All of these issues — Palestinian state, Jerusalem, refugees, international intervention — have their own way of creeping into the public discourse and becoming part of the agenda. At first, they are usually attributed to the domain of the “radical” thinkers with no basis in reality. They are rejected as being non-negotiable, nondiscussable, by the mainstream politicians. Then they creep into the academic debate and, at the same time, are introduced again and again into political chat shows and on the op-ed pages of the newspapers. Then, some politicians begin to mention these ideas and they appear on the “informal” documents and proposals of back room, off-the-track negotiations as each side tries out new ideas on the other without making any formal commitment. And then they appear in the public opinion surveys that are so common in Israel, as a means of sounding out the wider population and gauging the level of support for such ideas. Once the taboo ideas get this far, they are part of the public agenda and there is absolutely nothing — certainly not a politically manipulated vote in the Likud Party meeting — which can do anything to turn the clock back and remove them from the public debate or from the negotiating agenda.

If there is to be a return to political negotiations when the current bout of violence comes to an end, then there cannot be any issue which either side wants to raise and which is not placed firmly on the table. Back at Oslo, some major issues such as Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, etc., were put off to a later date, because it was felt they were too sensitive to discuss at such an early stage of the negotiations. But all of these issues have now become part of the public debate. Netanyahu — in his attempt to remove the debate over a Palestinian state from the negotiating agenda — simply proved that he didn’t understand the way in which public discourse is created and legitimized and, as such, has proved beyond a doubt that he will never be a prime minister to bring peace to the troubled land of Israel.

David Newman is chairman of the department of politics and government at Ben Gurion University of the Negev and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. He recently visited Los Angeles.