If Benjamin Netanyahu hadn’t gone into politics he’d be on Broadway, hamming it up as a pantomime villain. Israel’s hawkish prime minister is theatrically obnoxious to the point where even Israel’s staunchest allies in the American Jewish community are urging him to tone it down. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t just show up to your house uninvited, but brings along his dirty laundry, empties your fridge, urinates in the sink and then abruptly storms out, complaining about poor service.
Few American or European officials will shed a tear if he is ousted in next month’s election. But it would be wrong to attribute their hostility purely to Netanyahu’s abrasive style.
Last year, US Secretary of State John Kerry engineered a high-profile diplomatic bid to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. He sought to capitalise on Palestinians’ political weakness by securing their leaders’ acquiescence to Israel’s long-standing conditions for an agreement.
Despite successfully extracting a Palestinian signature, Kerry’s initiative failed when Netanyahu prioritized his coalition’s survival and rejected his country’s previously declared bottom lines as insufficient. American humiliation was total, and an enduring enmity was born.
An important distinction must be made between Kerry’s proposal for resolving the conflict and what is widely known as the two-state solution. The latter entails a peace based on Israel’s withdrawal to its legal borders (with minor and mutual land swaps), the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza, and a just resolution for Palestinian refugees in accordance with international law.
This framework enjoys overwhelming international political support—‘on the matter of borders’, Israel’s former prime minister Ehud Barak lamented, ‘the entire world agrees with the Palestinians and not with us’—and its legal premises have been affirmed by the International Court of Justice.
Kerry’s proposal, by contrast, would see Israel annex its major illegal settlement blocs on critical chunks of Palestinian territory, redraw its border roughly along the route of the illegal Wall and nullify the refugees’ right of return. These terms fly in the face of international law and make mockery of a future Palestinian state. Kerry’s success would signal the two-state solution’s demise.
Mainstream Israeli parties are united in rejecting the international consensus for resolving the conflict; what divides them is the Kerry plan. Whereas Netanyahu is content to maintain the status quo of occupation and settlement expansion de facto, the pro-Kerry camp desires its legal consecration, for the sake of which it is willing to abandon isolated settlements east of the Wall.
The Zionist Union heads up Israel’s pro-Kerry opposition to Netanyahu. Its leaders, Labour’s Isaac Herzog and Hatnuah’s Tzipi Livni, could scarcely have been more explicit in their support for Kerry and corresponding repudiation of a settlement based on international law.
‘When we distinguish between isolated settlements and the blocs’, Livni explains, ‘then we legitimize the settlement blocs’. ‘I believe in the blocs’, Herzog declares; they should ‘be part of Israel for ever’. Livni, who in 2007 proclaimed before Palestinian negotiators that ‘I am a lawyer… but I am against law—international law in particular’, has described the Wall as Israel’s ‘future border’.
If Netanyahu forms Israel’s next government, Palestine’s foreseeable future will resemble its unbearable present. Europe may escalate economic pressure on Israel, but not sufficiently to bring about the occupation’s end, while at the United Nations the US and Europe might seek to enshrine the parameters for future negotiations in a new Security Council resolution.
Such a resolution could wind up granting the settlement blocs to Israel, representing a historic defeat from which the Palestinian struggle for self-determination would almost certainly not recover. Just as UN Security Council Resolution 242 (1967) has served as the bedrock for negotiations the past half century, a new security council resolution inscribing the Kerry plan would set the parameters of all future negotiations.
But the triumph of Netanyahu’s opposition would bring its own dangers. There are strong indications that Kerry and the leading European governments are preparing to resume negotiations in the event of a Zionist Union victory: US and European officials have been meddling in Israel’s elections with increasing brazenness, the Middle East Quartet describes itself as ‘actively engaged in preparing for a resumption of the peace process’ and, what’s more ominous still, Quartet special envoy Tony Blair is on the move.
Renewed negotiations may go one of two ways. At best, they would replicate previous efforts by achieving zero political progress while reducing the diplomatic cost of occupation for Israel, even as illegal settlement construction continues. As veteran Israeli journalist Gideon Levy warns, the ‘Israeli peace party would intoxicate the world, which in its despair would again be enticed’.
At worst, new talks would issue in the agreement Kerry tried and failed to secure last year. With Netanyahu gone, the decisive obstacle to securing formal Palestinian capitulation to US-Israeli terms may have been removed.
The only actor capable of frustrating the above developments and forcing the two-state solution back on the table is a mass non-violent Palestinian movement. But don’t hold your breath for the Palestinian Authority (PA) to pursue this approach. As the Zionist Union’s candidate for defense minister, Amos Yadlin, explains, ‘it is not at all clear that such a popular uprising would not be aimed first and foremost at the PA leadership itself’.
Yet the alternative is to leave the conflict and its resolution in the hands of those who are indifferent or hostile to Palestinian rights. From such villains as these, be they flamboyant or restrained, one should expect nothing but villainy.