The Netanyahu Pirouette and the Obligations of the Israeli State

March 20, 2015

So Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, has rejected a two-state solution. No, wait, that was the other day. He actually accepts, indeed, wants, a two-state solution. But hang on: it has to be under the right circumstances.

In and of themselves, Netanyahu’s gyrations may not be that noteworthy. He is not the first politician to engage in deception and cynical manipulation to ensure reelection. And Obama is not in a position to lecture him about such tactics. More important than the fact of Netanyahu’s flip-flop-flip is the light that it shines on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in particular on the obligations of the Israeli state.

Netanyahu’s pre-election comments that he would not allow a separate Palestinian state to come into existence while he was in power are troubling to say the least. And these remarks are magnified in significance by Netanyahu’s apparent deprecation of his own Arab citizens. Netanyahu’s breathless warning that “Arab voters are coming out in droves!” is not exactly the observation one would expect of the leader of a government that is supposed to represent and respect all its people.

The White House has reacted quickly to Netanyahu’s comments. Specifically, the White House indicated that it may now back a United Nations Security Council resolution that calls for a two-state solution and outlines the territories to be allocated to Israel and Palestine. The United States has previously withheld support for such a resolution on the ground that the parties themselves should negotiate the terms of any settlement. However, this presupposes that the parties actually are willing to work toward a two-state solution, and Israel under Netanyahu does not seem inclined to do so. Leaving aside his recent equivocal statements, the fact is that Netanyahu has made no serious effort to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Absent some concrete steps by Israel to open serious negotiations with the Palestinians, the United States should support the Security Council resolution. It has been nearly 50 years since Israel has seized control of the West Bank and Gaza. That occupation should not continue indefinitely, and cannot continue indefinitely without reducing the Palestinians to the status of helots. (Yes, I recognize that technically Israel is not “occupying” these territories: it just reserves the right to send military forces into these territories when it wants to and prevents them from organizing themselves into a nation state.)

Support for Israel, at least humanist support for Israel, has been predicated in large part on the understanding that Israel is a democracy that respects fundamental human rights, arguably the only such government in that region of the world. Yes, Israel has from time-to-time taken military action that may seem unduly harsh and punitive, but these actions have been accepted as unfortunate but necessary measures to confront the threats against Israel. Permanent suppression by military force, which is what an indefinite occupation of the West Bank and Gaza would entail, is not acceptable. It certainly is not consistent with humanist principles.

I’m aware of Netanyahu’s argument that a two-state solution is impossible now because it would result in the creation of a terrorist state alongside Israel. I don’t accept Netanyahu’s reasoning. One reason terrorism is attractive to all too many Palestinians is because they see no alternative. What are they supposed to do? Wait for a couple more decades to see if the Israeli government may condescend to negotiate—while witnessing settlement after Israeli settlement taking over land that had been considered Palestinian?

I’m not questioning Israel’s right to exist. I’m not going get into historical arguments about what happened in 1917 or 1948. To begin, the history is much more complicated than partisans on either side are usually willing to acknowledge. Moreover, regardless of the history, the fact is that there are now millions of Israelis. Elimination of the state of Israel is neither an ethical nor realistic option, and the United States should make clear to the enemies of Israel that they should not even contemplate such a possibility.

But just as Israel has a right to exist, so too the Palestinians have a right to organize themselves into an independent nation state. If Israel is unwilling to assist in that process, then, however reluctantly, the United States, along with other countries, may have to impose this resolution on Israel.