Netanyahu faces moment of truth


JERUSALEM (JTA) — Pressed to take a firm stand on the two-state solution, Benjamin Netanyahu’s moment of truth may have come sooner than he wanted.

Despite strong international and domestic pressure, Israel’s prime minister-designate is refusing to come out in support of the idea of two states for two peoples, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace.

Ever since President Bush outlined his vision of two states in June 2002, the two-state solution has been consensus international policy and the basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Netanyahu’s refusal to reaffirm Israel’s commitment to the two-state principle leaves him out of step with the rest of the international community. It also is likely to cost him the chance of forming a more moderate coalition.

Already the main international players are ratcheting up pressure on Netanyahu to back the two-state idea.

In an interview in advance of her trip this week to the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Voice of America radio on Feb. 27 that Washington would continue working “to create an independent, viable Palestinian state in both the West Bank and Gaza. “

A few days earlier, European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels insisted that the two-state solution was “the only option. “

“We hope that the new Israeli government will honor the obligations taken by Israel under the ‘road map’ and at Annapolis, and refrain from measures rendering a two-state solution impossible, ” said an official statement from the Czech E.U. presidency.

In Israel, Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni has made acceptance of the two-state idea a condition for joining Netanyahu’s coalition.

“Two states is not an empty slogan, ” she said. “It’s the only way Israel can remain Jewish and fight terror. “

Even though he very much wants to see Kadima in his government, Netanyahu has made only vague promises to continue peace talks. In messages to world leaders, he has pledged to honor commitments by previous Israeli governments but has omitted any explicit references to Palestinian statehood.

Netanyahu also has been very careful in statements to the media. Asked specifically about the two-state solution in an interview with the Washington Post, he replied guardedly, “Substantively, I think there is broad agreement inside Israel and outside that the Palestinians should have the ability to govern their lives but not to threaten ours. “

In other words, yes to self-government but not necessarily to statehood.

The obvious reason Netanyahu is treading so carefully is that he doesn’t want to alienate his hard-line potential coalition partners before he has even a narrow, right-wing government in place.

But his opposition to Palestinian statehood goes much deeper. In fact, Netanyahu is adopting very much the same position he did during his first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999. He argued then that in any agreement with Israel, the Palestinian entity would be so severely restricted that it would be less than a fully independent state. It would not be allowed to have control over its airspace, control border crossing points, raise an army or enter into military pacts with foreign powers.

Netanyahu still holds these positions, which he says are essential for Israel’s security. Therefore he will not to commit to full Palestinian statehood — a concept he fears might erode some or most of these restrictions.

The Likud leader also insists that for security reasons Israel must retain nearly 50 percent of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley. This, too, runs counter to the international consensus notion of a “viable and contiguous ” Palestinian state.

While all other Israeli prime ministers have dramatically changed their views on Palestinian statehood in the decade since Netanyahu was last prime minister, Netanyahu appears to remain unwavering in his opposition to Palestinian statehood.

In early 2002, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, aware of Bush’s impending “vision speech, ” announced his tentative acceptance of the two-state idea, Netanyahu hurriedly convened the Likud Central Committee to challenge Sharon. In the ensuing ballot, Sharon was humiliated. His proposal to defer the vote on a Netanyahu-backed resolution that “no Palestinian state will be established west of the Jordan ” was defeated 696 to 465. As Sharon left the podium to loud booing, the Netanyahu measure was carried by a nearly unanimous show of hands.

The vote, however, had no impact. Sharon adopted the two-state solution and his successor, Ehud Olmert, declared that without it Israel “was finished. “

Ironically, at the time of the 2002 Likud ballot, Netanyahu joined forces with the hawkish Moshe Feiglin, whose far-right Jewish leadership movement advocates transfer of Israeli Arab citizens out of Israel. But in this year’s election, Netanyahu pushed Feiglin down the party slate in a bid to give Likud a more moderate image.

Some Netanyahu watchers suggest that his position on Palestinian statehood may only be tactical, designed to earn Israel a better deal at the bazaar-like Middle East bargaining table. In Netanyahu’s view, they say, statehood should come only at the end of a negotiating process after being used as a lever to acquire concessions from the Palestinians and not conceded up front as Sharon, Olmert and Livni all have done.

But it is almost certainly too late for such a gambit. Holding back on Palestinian statehood when it has been conceded by previous Israeli governments is unlikely to fly in an international climate where the two-state goal long has been taken for granted.

The stance could well bring Netanyahu into conflict with the United States and European Union. Worse, it could lead to renewed confrontation with the Palestinians, with Israel in the untenable position of putting down a Palestinian uprising for a two-state solution Israel itself had previously accepted.

The same is true of Netanyahu’s attempt to turn back the clock on the issue of West Bank territory. It’s hard to see how Netanyahu could offer the Palestinians only 50 percent of the West Bank when Olmert, Livni and Labor’s Ehud Barak all have offered well over 90 percent, with land swaps for whatever areas Israel annexes. This was also the U.S. position as expressed in the December 2000 parameters set down by President Clinton.

It is partly because he realizes the implications of his hard-line positions that Netanyahu so desperately wants Livni and/or Barak in his government.

If he doesn’t back the two-state solution, they could serve as a fig leaf for his government. If he does, they could provide both the excuse to the right for his making such a major concession and the political support to see them through.

First, however, Netanyahu would have to say the magic words and back two states for two peoples.

If does he might lose the hawks, though even Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman supports a two-state solution. If he doesn’t, he almost certainly will lose the doves.

Netanyahu is trapped, and in this moment of truth there is nowhere for him to hide.