While an increasing number of Likud MKs are coming up with alternatives to the two-state solution, David Bitan – a leading Likud MK and the Coalition Chairman – came out against one-staters in a Haaretz interview this weekend. Bitan may not be an influential policy maker, but he is a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara, frequently showing his commitment to them both in and outside of the Knesset such as by organizing the support rally for Netanyahu last month virtually on his own. That is why his comments this weekend against one-state are important as they reflect not only his personal views, but likely reflect those of Netanyahu’s inner circle.
Positioning themselves for the day after Netanyahu and sensing a political shift to the right within the party, a number of prominent Likud MKs have expressed their support for annexing parts of the West Bank. From party favorite Gidon Sa’ar to Ministers Gilad Erdan and Yisrael Katz and rising MKs Miki Zohar and Oren Hazan, the two-state solution has become a non-starter among the Likud elite even though it technically remains party policy. Netanyahu famously endorsed two states during his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech and has not officially backed away from it, but it is doubtful he is willing to make the compromises needed to reach an agreement, especially if it means risking his political career.
While Netanyahu remains seemingly committed to some form of separation from the Palestinians, the trend toward one-state among Likud policy makers has blurred the party lines between theirs and the far-right Jewish Home party. The Jewish Home’s leader and current Education Minister Naftali Bennett proposes Israel annex Area C, an area encompassing 60% of the West Bank. Such a step would create an archipelago of 170 Palestinian islands disconnected from each other, making transportation and urban growth a nightmare, not to mention giving Israel a virtually indefensible border.
Many Likud MKs have endorsed the Bennett plan – or at least aspects of it – yet Bitan claims that the Likud policy is very different. “There is a big difference between us and the Jewish Home.. on the issue of two states… the Jewish Home supports one state, annex only 80,000 Arabs living around the settlements (Area C) and solve the problem but you can’t do a half job. No one will allow us to annex just part of the area without solving the entire problem, and annexing the entire area means changing the character of the state because more Arabs will vote in the Knesset.”
When asked about Likud MK Miki Zohar’s plan, which calls to annex the entire West Bank but not allow Palestinians to vote, Bitan said: “You can’t say things that are not serious (referring to Zohar’s plan). If there is one state, in ten years Netanyahu will be running against Abu Mazen in Israeli elections.” Bitan may be overly optimistic about Netanyahu’s longevity, but to his credit, he understands that unilaterally annexing parts of the West Bank will have serious consequences.
Netanyahu has also shown no interest in entertaining annexation plans from the right. He is well aware that such steps would have serious repercussions for Israel’s security and its international standing. With reports of the administration getting ready to reveal its plan for Middle East peace, Bitan’s comments suggest supporters of the two-state solution have reason to be cautiously optimistic.
After meetings with Donald Trump and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in New York, Netanyahu told his cabinet ministers that ‘Trump conveyed his seriousness’ with regards to a deal with the Palestinians and Arab states. American envoy Jason Greenblatt has returned to Israel this week for more meetings. Netanyahu likely expects an offer from the Americans with the support of Egypt and other pragmatic Arab states that involves restarting the peace process with hopes of reaching a two-state solution and complete normalization with the Arab world. Netanyahu has indicated on numerous occasions that he is aware that this unprecedented regional opportunity exists, but it is unclear for how long. This comes at a time when Iran’s increasing influence in Syria and backing of Hezbollah is of growing concern. An Israeli-Palestinian peace deal as part of a regional agreement has the potential to greatly weaken Iran, as Noa Shusterman eloquently wrote in Matzav Blog yesterday.
Despite all this, it is hard to be optimistic that any real progress can be made. We are talking about the same Benjamin Netanyahu who has shown his reluctance to take political risks time after time, famously backing out in the last minute of a coalition with the Zionist Union that was based on a regional initiative led by President el-Sisi.
Nonetheless, the region is changing. Reports last week indicate that Bahrain may normalize ties with Israel as early as next year and the onus remains on Netanyahu to turn this regional opportunity into something significant. It is clear that Israel cannot make a regional breakthrough while bypassing the Palestinians. Netanyahu understands this, and even if he isn’t ready to take the necessary risks and compromises to advance a two-state solution during his time as prime minister, he also seems unready to kill it.
Even to Benjamin Netanyahu, leading the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, the two-state solution remains the only game in town. That in itself is reason for proponents of the two-state solution to be optimistic.