Netanyahu Dodges the Cross

It once seemed possible that the Israeli prime minister would take bold risks to secure his country's future. No more.

The Judean desert near the West Bank city of Jericho (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is fond of recalling Vice President Joe Biden's suggestion that he nail himself to a very large cross.

It was 2011, and they were in Jerusalem, in Netanyahu's office. Biden was encouraging the prime minister to make a bold leap for peace, and not to waste time on half-measures. "My father always said, 'Don't crucify yourself on a small cross,'" Biden said. Netanyahu laughed. Only Joe Biden, he would tell people later, would travel to Jerusalem to encourage a Jewish prime minister to crucify himself. Netanyahu's ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, told me he thought that Biden posssessed a particularly acute understanding of the challenge Netanyahu was facing. He also told me that Netanyahu was up to the Biden challenge.

Netanyahu constantly let his American interlocutors know that he was committed to real compromise with the Palestinians, mainly because he understood the threat posed to Israel by its continued occupation of the West Bank. There was no point, he said, in making small, futile gestures. He had his skeptics in the Obama administration—first and foremost, Obama himself—but Netanyahu argued that he would be willing, under the right conditions, to risk his governing coalition and even his political career in order to make the brave leap.

It was Obama's rise that forced Netanyahu to confront the issue of Palestinian statehood in the first place. He had always doubted Palestinian intentions, and he was, in any case, ideologically committed to settling Judea and Samaria, the ancient Jewish names for the territory of the West Bank. In 2009, in a speech at Bar-Ilan University, Netanyahu, under pressure from Obama (with whom he then had a semi-functional relationship), announced his support for the creation of a Palestinian state: "In this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect," he said. "Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other."

Through the intervening years, Netanyahu maintained his rhetorical commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state, even as he continued to expand West Bank settlements, and even as he frustrated his American friends by dodging Biden's cross. He had a partner in avoidance, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who proved to be an irresolute partner in peace, to put it mildly. But it was on Netanyahu to break through the morass—he was the one who controlled the territory on which the Palestinian state would be created.

President Obama's main criticism of Netanyahu—at least until the latest Iran-centered crisis—was that he was not, in fact, willing to risk political capital for the sake of compromise. In an interview in 2013, Obama told me that his message for Netanyahu was simple: "If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?” Obama went on to say that if Netanyahu “does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach," adding, "It’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible.”

Despite his doubts, Obama allowed his secretary of state, John Kerry, a sincere believer in the possibility of peace, to pursue negotiations. Kerry and his chief negotiator, Martin Indyk, threw themselves at the problem with enthusiasm. American negotiators became convinced, to varying degrees, that Netanyahu would soon make the bold move they were hoping for. Even Kerry's predecessor, Hillary Clinton, who watched her husband grow frustrated with Netanyahu during his first term as prime minister, in the 1990s, came to believe that he had changed. "I saw Netanyahu move from being against the two-state solution to announcing his support for it, to considering all kinds of [Ehud] Barak-like options, way far from what he is, and what he is comfortable with," Clinton told me last summer.

Yesterday, Netanyahu announced to the world that this analysis was incorrect. In a fight for his political life against an opponent he did not take seriously, Netanyahu attempted to shore up his right-wing base by renouncing the commitment he made at Bar-Ilan. "I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel," he said in an interview with a right-leaning Israeli website. "There is a real threat here that a left-wing government will join the international community and follow its orders." And earlier today, he played the role of demagogue, warning his right-wing base that the left was encouraging Arab Israelis to vote, in order to sink his government.

So much for his commitment to Israeli democracy, and so much for his commitment to a two-state solution.

It is possible to understand an Israeli leader's hesitancy about creating a Palestinian state at this exact moment—one in which the Arab state system seems to be in partial collapse; one in which Sunni extremism is on the march; and one in which Iran appears to be in an expansionist mode. But a leader who is interested in protecting Israel's status as a haven for the Jewish people (a haven whose necessity is being proven again, unfortunately) while maintaining it as a democracy, would at least create conditions on the West Bank that could allow a Palestinian state to one day emerge, and he would certainly not disavow his promise to work to bring such a state about, no matter how many votes were at stake.

I admire John Kerry greatly for trying as hard as he did to negotiate a two-state solution. He was criticized as naive, but he saw an opening, and he took it. It was worth the risk. But if Netanyahu somehow returns to office—and anything is possible in the free-for-all of an Israeli election—I can't imagine that Kerry, or his boss, would choose to devote any more time in turning Netanyahu toward compromise. And though I haven't asked him yet, I'm fairly certain Joe Biden also believes that Netanyahu will not be seeking out a cross on which to nail himself. Netanyahu, it seems, is about the perpetuation of one thing—Netanyahu.

There is no guarantee, of course, that Isaac Herzog, the Labor Party leader who might emerge as Israel's next prime minister, will take bold steps toward peace, or succeed in this pursuit. But, unlike Netanyahu, Herzog seems to understand that the status quo is not sustainable over the long term, and he understands that the prime minister's office is a means to an end, not an end in itself.