Like many, I was terribly unhappy, as the Israeli election campaign wound down, to see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemingly reverse his support for a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians; a stand he has taken – at least publicly – since a 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University.
But, in an interview published March 16, the day before the election, Netanyahu told NRG, a Hebrew-language Israeli news website, “I think anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state and to evacuate territory is giving radical Islam a staging ground against the State of Israel. This is the reality that has been created here in recent years. Anyone who ignores it has his head in the sand.”
Perhaps taken aback, the interviewer sought clarification from Netanyahu. “If you are a prime minister, there will be no Palestinian state?” he asked.
“Indeed,” Netanyahu responded.
It was a purposeful message aimed at getting hardline supporters of other right wing parties to coalesce around Likud. With polls consistently showing right wing support stagnant and Likud trailing the Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog, the prime minister understood his path to victory could well depend on drawing voters away from other right wing parties.
And it worked. The number of right wing seats in the new Knesset will be the same as in the last one – but significantly more of them will be held by Likud MKs.
I believe the two-state solution is the only resolution to the conflict that will protect Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state and offer Palestinians the ability to build their own state and future. And it is a position that has been consistently supported by the majority of Israelis in countless opinion polls.
The two-state solution is also supported by the governments of virtually every Western democracy – from the countries of the European Union to the United States to here in Canada. Yes, even Canada, where our prime minister, Stephen Harper, seems to be almost alone among world leaders in having a genuine personal friendship with Netanyahu, our government has never wavered from its official support for a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict.
While Netanyahu understood that changing his public stance on a two-state solution would help keep him in the Prime Minister’s Office, he also surely understood that such a policy would further isolate him – and Israel – on the world stage and would provide ammunition to those seeking to delegitimize the Jewish state.
Truth be told, reaching the two-state solution is highly unlikely under the current Palestinian leadership – and the current Israeli leadership. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas walked away from a 2008 settlement offer that should have ended the conflict. And, since then, he has used any and every excuse to avoid negotiations.
And Netanyahu’s government has frequently taken actions – particularly in regard to settlement expansion – that it knew would give the Palestinians the reasons they need to justify avoiding negotiations.
And then, on Election Day itself, Netanyahu took to Facebook to rally his supporters because Arab-Israelis were voting “in droves.” As Barbara Crook suggests in her analysis, the comment was racist and divisive.
So, would racism and opposition to a peace settlement be the face of the next Netanyahu government?
The day after the election, I saw an interview with Israeli Ambassador Rafael Barak on CBC News Network’s Power and Politics. The ambassador, when asked about those statements, suggested they were made in the heat of a campaign and would be dialled back.
And, sure enough, Netanyahu himself took to American TV the next day, to do just that.
“I don’t want a one-state solution, I want a sustainable peaceful two-state solution, but, for that, circumstances have to change,” he told NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell, pointing to Islamist turmoil in the Middle East and the Palestinian Authority’s recent arrangements with Hamas.
And about his comments on Arab voters, Netanyahu said he wasn’t trying to suppress Arab voters, he was trying to stand up to “foreign-funded” efforts to topple his government by getting out the Arab vote. “I was calling on our voters to come out.”
It will likely be some weeks before we know the composition of Israel’s next government. While it appears probable that a right wing coalition will emerge, I can’t help but think, after such a deliberately divisive campaign, that a national unity government is what’s truly needed.