After claiming earlier this week that he would not support a Palestinian state, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who almost certainly secured a fourth term, tried to soften that stance on Thursday, leaving questions as to what policy stance he’ll actually pursue.
“I haven’t changed my policy,” Netanyahu told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell in an effort to clarify remarks he made on the eve of Israel’s election. “I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution,” he added. Netanyahu is currently in the process of forming a new coalition government.
But the walk-back was largely expected — even predicted — by Israeli policy experts on both sides of the Atlantic, who saw Netanyahu’s initial comments as a desperate attempt to win-over pro-settlement Israeli voters. It also comes just one day after White House officials condemned the Israeli leader and suggested to the New York Times that the U.S. would not block attempts by the Palestinians to seek recognition from the United Nations. Palestinian leaders in the West Bank also floated curtailing their security coordination with Israel in response to Netanyahu.
“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,” Netanyahu told a news website on Monday as polls showed him trailing the more liberal Zionist Union coalition party.
The remarks shocked some Democrats in the United States but were met with mere shrugs in the Arab world. “He was never a man of the two-state solution,” Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator to the peace talks, told the New York Times. Indeed, as George Mitchell, a former senate majority leader and President Obama’s envoy to the Middle East from 2009 to 2011, pointed out when asked about Netanyahu’s change of heart, Arab countries never believed Netanyahu’s public embrace of the two state solution in 2009, pointing to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the disputed territories and his demands of the Palestinians.
The Netanyahu government established 20 new settlements by “approving illegal outposts,” with the majority consisting of “isolated settlements east of the planned route of the separation barrier.” Just one “settlement is located in an area designated as Israel under the Geneva Initiative outline,” which provides a basic delineation for Israel and a future Palestinian state. “The number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank now exceeds 350,000,” the New York Times reported earlier this month.
“What I see is much more emphasis on construction in the most problematic settlements, which are the potential deal-breakers for a two-state solution,” Hagit Ofran, director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project, told the Times. “It was a taboo beforehand. The official policy of Israel was, we are not building new settlements, we are heading for peace. The Netanyahu government just left this policy.”
Netanyahu also sought to introduce “a public declaration of the Jewishness of Israel as a condition the Palestinians had to meet” in the most recent peace negotiations (which ended in April 2014) and championed a “Nationality Law” enshrining Israel as a state of Jews in which “there are national rights only for the Jewish people.” The move was fiercely opposed by Israel’s Arab and Christian communities as well as members of Netanyahu’s own government, who argued that the measure would undermine relations with Palestinians and isolate Israel from the rest of the world.
“While Netanyahu’s rhetoric has shifted back and forth based on political expediency, his actions have remained the same: He has continued to support policies, such as the creation of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, designed to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state,” Matt Duss, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, told ThinkProgress. Duss previously worked at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
The prime minister is now forming a new government, which, the New York Times reports, “will almost certainly be more purely conservative.” However, Israel analysts predict that Netanyahu “might well limit settlement construction and make other gestures to soothe the Palestinian situation,” as his new coalition may be more concerned with kitchen-table issues. His reversal on a two-state solution may be the beginning of that process.
President Obama called to congratulate Netanyahu on his re-election but challenged his position on the two-state solution and his Election Day comments about Israeli Arabs.
“The president told the prime minister that we will need to reassess our options following the prime minister’s new positions and comments regarding the two state solution,” a White House official official said. “They also discussed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments about Israeli Arabs.”