With the Palestinians stiffing Secretary of State John Kerry’s calls for them to rejoin talks with Israel without—as President Obama has asked them to do—preconditions, there really isn’t much to talk about what we call, for lack of a better term, the Middle East peace process. So instead the media is focusing on what is a purely theoretical argument between members of Israel’s government and claiming that this dispute, rather than the failure of the Palestinians to take advantage of President Obama’s advocacy for a two-state solution, is responsible for the impasse.
That’s the upshot of the furor over recent statements by Israel’s Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads one of the parties that make up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, and Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud, to the extent that the two-state solution is already dead and buried. According to Jodi Rudoren of the New York Times, this illustrates the deep division within Israeli society about both the desirability and the viability of the idea that peace will be achieved by creating a Palestinian state living alongside Israel. But the tempest over Bennett and Danon, both of whom would like Israel to begin to act as if there will never be a resolution of the conflict, isn’t really a new version of a decades-old internal debate about how peace can be achieved. That strategic argument was pretty much resolved in the last 20 years as even most of the political right that had long believed that Israel could settle all of the land west of the Jordan River as well as having peace came to understand that wasn’t going to happen.
Instead, what Israel is currently experiencing is a debate about tactics. Namely, should the country go on pretending as if peace with the Palestinians is possible to please Washington or call things by their rightful names and simply do what they want in terms of annexing part of the West Bank (Bennett’s solution) or simply stop talking about two states as Danon seems to want to do. The former position is more practical in terms of bolstering Israel’s diplomatic position, but the fact that Bennett and Danon are saying that there will be no two-state solution does not make it any less likely to happen if the Palestinians are willing to accept it. Those who claim these statements are actually damaging the prospects of peace don’t understand the facts of life in the Middle East or the realities of Israeli politics.
There is only one reason why Bennett and Danon are able to claim that the two-state solution is dead. It’s because they’re right.
Having turned down three offers of statehood including shares of Jerusalem and almost all of the West Bank, the Palestinians have repeatedly demonstrated they are still unwilling to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. With Gaza under the thumb of Hamas and the Fatah kleptocracy in charge of the West Bank equally unwilling to negotiate an agreement, there is no realistic scenario whereby a peace accord that actually ended the conflict can possibly be concluded anytime soon. Contrary to the regular scoldings Israel gets from President Obama and people like former President Clinton, Israel doesn’t need to be pushed to take risks for peace. It has already taken dangerous gambles in the name of peace and paid for them in blood. The status quo may be unpleasant, but the notion of further territorial withdrawals—which might turn the West Bank into a terrorist launching pad like Gaza has become—is the sort of thing no rational Israeli government will accept under these circumstances no matter who is leading it.
It is true that elements of the current coalition are not in favor of even a theoretical two state solution, but that is not the case with Netanyahu. Moreover, even Bennett and Danon know (though they would be loathe to admit it) that were the Palestinians to adopt a straightforward position accepting peace with a Jewish state and ending the conflict for all time (including the complete renunciation of terror and all violence against Israel and dropping the right of return for the descendants of the Arab refugees of Israel’s War of Independence), it is almost certain they would discover that the overwhelming majority of Israelis would back such a deal even if it meant painful sacrifices just as they endorsed the hope of the Oslo Accords 20 years ago. Neither Bennett nor Danon or even Netanyahu could stop peace if the chance of achieving it was even remotely realistic. But after 20 years of peace processing in which Israelis came to understand that they were trading land for more terror, not peace, most of the country doesn’t even think the issue is worth arguing about anymore, as last winter’s Knesset elections proved.
Support for the peace process has gone the way of the old narrowly divided Israeli electorate between right and left. If even the right knows it can’t simply hold onto all of the West Bank now, most of the left has acknowledged that its illusions about the Palestinians wanting peace are equally unrealistic.
That leaves Israel stuck with a situation that everyone says is not viable in the long run but for which there is no viable alternative. In the absence of a real debate, the right produces empty rhetoric about more settlements (not going to happen since even Netanyahu doesn’t think its worth antagonizing the West) or annexation that has zero chance of passage while the left sometimes talks as if the experience of the last 20 years has simply been flushed down the memory hole.
The rest of Israel eschews such fantasies and remains committed to a two-state solution in theory while understanding that it must await a sea change in Palestinian political culture in order to become reality. That’s why the arguments about what Bennett and Danon have said are a tempest-in-a-teapot with no connection to a genuine policy decision. Only the Palestinians can resolve the contradictions that bedevil Israeli politics. But since Netanyahu will never have to confront his political allies over peace, it doesn’t matter what they say about it. And with a Palestinian leadership that is unwilling as well as incapable of making peace, that confrontation isn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future.