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Does Netanyahu believe in a regional approach to peace?

One of the big mysteries of Israeli politics remains Prime Minister Netanyahu’s long-term strategic thinking regarding future relations with the Palestinians — assuming he has any. Over the years he managed to contradict himself on numerous occasions, vacillating between supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel, to rejecting this idea in its entirety. It is not just his words that bewilder many people, but Netanyahu’s deeds of presiding over the constant expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and the punitive blockade over Gaza, which leaves little impression that he is a true man of peace.
In a letter written by Netanyahu last September to Yitzhak Herzog, the leader of the Israeli opposition Labor Party, he stated his “commitment to a solution of two states for two peoples and our desire to pursue this process.” The letter, which was exposed last week by the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, was an attempt by the Israeli prime minister to lure the dovish opposition party into a unity coalition government.

Israel’s prime minister sends out contradictory messages as to whether he is committed to a two-state solution, or to endless settlements expansion and ever-deepening occupation.

Yossi Mekelberg

The lackluster Herzog was criticized for wasting time negotiating on such matters with Netanyahu. Unbeknownst to his critics, a regional diplomatic activity to kick-start the peace process had already been set in motion preceding this letter. In February 2016, the then Secretary of State John Kerry, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdallah met with Netanyahu in the Jordanian Red Sea town of Aqaba. Netanyahu rejected Kerry’s plan then, and proceeded to backtrack from the letter he sent to Herzog, fearing backlash from other members of his coalition and within his own party. Was Netanyahu misleading all parties concerned from the outset, in feigning sincerity in supporting a peace-based territorial compromise? Or, when push came to shove did he just lack the necessary stamina to confront those in Israel who oppose peace?
Had Netanyahu found the courage to form a new and more peace-friendly government, this letter, according to Haaretz, would have become a draft to be submitted in a summit in Cairo or Sharm El-Sheikh hosted by the Egyptian president and possibly attended by the Jordanian king. He failed to do so, some argue, due to political crises surrounding the illegal outposts. This led to the collapse of negotiations to bring the Labor Party into government, also bringing an end to the peace initiative. This highlights the tragic state of affairs in Israeli politics and its visionless leadership.

A zigzagging politician
This affair also serves as further evidence that the Israeli political system has been hijacked by the vested interests of the most zealot-like representatives in the Knesset — the interests of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank. They very effectively exploit a weak and out-of-sorts prime minister whose only aspiration left is to stay in power for as long as possible. He has always been a zigzagging politician, who is stronger on political maneuvers than statesmanship. In 2009, Netanyahu delivered a speech at the University of Bar Ilan that could have become a seminal moment of his premiership. He argued then that Israel should not rule the lives of Palestinians. In the same speech he asserted: “In my vision of peace there are two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect.”

Case of two Netanyahus
In the following years he diluted this “vision” almost entirely, forming coalition after coalition that did not share a vision of peace and compromise with the Palestinians. In a recent TV interview, one of his most senior members of coalition, the leader of the Jewish Home party Naftali Bennett, asserted that “the era of a Palestinian state is over,” citing the Old Testament as his claim for not making any territorial compromises in the West Bank. No rebuke came from the prime minister or his office.
This is a severe case of two Netanyahus. On some level he understands that Israeli long-term security, Jewishness, democratic character and standing in the world require direct and honest peace negotiations with the Palestinians. He accepts, as his letter to Herzog stated, a regional approach and the need to moderate Israeli settlement activities and improve living conditions for the Palestinians until an agreement is reached. The other Netanyahu, which mainly appears in public, is fearful of his party, of his core voters and of his coalition members, and thus implements exactly the opposite policies. His government is entrenching the occupation, deepening Palestinian resentment and closing the window on a solution based on a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. It begs the question of who is the true Netanyahu? Is it the Netanyahu committed to a two-state solution, achieved through a regional approach? Or the Netanyahu of endless settlements expansion and ever-deepening occupation? The only plausible answer can be given by following his actions, and not by the letters he writes or summits he participates in.

• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.