Netanyahu's Mistake

The Israeli prime minister argues against Palestinian sovereignty, citing regional chaos. But holding the West Bank forever is no solution. 
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Jacky Naegelen/Reuters

David Horovitz, the editor of the indispensable Times of Israel, noticed something on Friday that other observers did not. At a press conference, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been on record for several years now supporting the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, essentially said, "Never mind." Here's Horovitz:

[Netanyahu] spoke only in Hebrew, and we are in the middle of a mini-war, so his non-directly war-related remarks didn’t get widely reported. But those remarks should not be overlooked even in the midst of a bitter conflict with Gaza’s Islamist rulers; especially in the midst of a bitter conflict with Gaza’s Islamist rulers. The prime minister spoke his mind as rarely, if ever, before. He set out his worldview with the confidence of a leader who sees vindication in the chaos all around. He answered those fundamental questions.

It is not that Netanyahu renounced his rhetorical support for a two-state solution. He simply described such a state as an impossibility. 

[W]hile [Netanyahu] initially stuck to responses tied to the war against Hamas, its goals, and the terms under which it might be halted, he then moved—unasked—into territory he does not usually chart in public, and certainly not with such candor.

For some, his overall outlook will seem bleak and depressing; for others, savvy and pragmatic. One thing’s for sure: Nobody will ever be able to claim in the future that he didn’t tell us what he really thinks.

He made explicitly clear that he could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank. He indicated that he sees Israel standing almost alone on the frontlines against vicious Islamic radicalism, while the rest of the as-yet free world does its best not to notice the march of extremism. And he more than intimated that he considers the current American, John Kerry-led diplomatic team to be, let’s be polite, naive.

It is correct to note that the Middle East is a cauldron of Islamist extremism; it is correct to note that the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas is weak and faltering; it is also correct to note that on two previous occasions, Israel evacuated Arab territory—southern Lebanon in 2000, Gaza in 2005—only to see those territories soon enough come under control of extremists with rockets. So Netanyahu isn't crazy to note the dangers to Israel of an independent Palestinian entity on the West Bank. But he knows perfectly well that permanent occupation (and please don't doubt that an arrangement in which a Palestinian "state" isn't fully sovereign means, in fact, permanent occupation) is no solution for Israel, either.

Netanyahu is not crazy, and he's also not delusional, in the manner of certain political figures to his right, who believe that Israel can keep control of the Arabs of the West Bank forever without profound moral and political consequences. He knows, as he suggested to me in an interview this spring, that the status quo is not sustainable:

The first point of [Israeli national] consensus is that we don’t want a binational state. Another point of consensus is that we don’t want an Iranian proxy in territories we vacate. We want a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the nation-state of the Jews. 

If Netanyahu has convinced himself that a Palestinian state is an impossibility, then he has no choice but to accept the idea that the status quo eventually brings him to binationalism, either in its Jim Crow form—Palestinians absorbed into Israel, except without full voting rights—or its end-of-Israel-as-a-Jewish-state form, in which the two warring populations, Jewish and Arab, are combined into a single political entity, with chaos to predictably ensue. (Recent events in the Middle East suggest that it is not a place ripe for experiments in coexistence.)

Netanyahu's admission that he doesn't see a path to a truly independent Palestinian state serves no purpose except to convince that diminishing number of Palestinians who believe that the two-state solution is the best solution that they have no partner for compromise. As such, Netanyahu's comments are the rhetorical equivalent of settlement expansion in the West Bank. When West Bank Palestinians see new roads being built to connect settlements to Israel proper; when they see existing settlements growing, and hear of tenders for yet more dramatic growth, they ask themselves—as any observant person would—if the Israeli government is serious about allowing a viable Palestinian state to be born on land the Palestinians consider to be theirs.

Yes, yes, I know—there's no particular reason to believe that a Palestinian state will be a success, or that it wouldn't fall prey to the same strains of extremism that are spreading through the rest of the Arab Middle East. But I remain convinced that creative minds, and large-hearted people, can eventually devise a way to bring about a semi-amicable divorce between Israelis and Palestinians in a way that protects the security and dignity of both peoples. The fact that divorce is the only option that doesn't end in total disaster should also encourage the prime minister to think harder about the choices facing his country.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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