DURING his visit to Australia last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heard assurances of unstinted support for his extremist government and its policies from his host, but also had to contend with a few sharp critiques.
Australia’s beleaguered prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, voiced unequivocal opposition to last December’s UN Security Council resolution challenging the illegality of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, which passed because the US uncharacteristically opted for an abstention instead of the usual veto in the dying days of the Obama administration. Australia’s closest neighbour, New Zealand, was struck off Netanyahu’s itinerary after its conservative government co-sponsored the resolution.
On the eve of the Israeli leader’s arrival, meanwhile, two former Australian prime ministers as well as two former foreign ministers publicly made the case for formal recognition of the Palestinian state. There is a growing recognition pretty much throughout the West that the actions of Netanyahu’s unprecedentedly extremist government are geared towards preventing a peace settlement at almost any cost.
Sure, previous Israeli governments have not been all that different in their motivation. For instance, the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, far from being a dress rehearsal for pulling out from the West Bank, was in fact part of a plot to hang on indefinitely to Judea and Samaria, as a close aide to the then prime minister, Ariel Sharon, let slip. The takeover of the Strip by Hamas perfectly suited the interests of Israeli propaganda. It’s easy to forget, after all, that Hamas’s Islamist antecedents were surreptitiously backed by the Israeli state as a means of undermining support for the secular Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and its Fatah faction.
Key members of Israel’s cabinet favour partial annexation.
Turnbull persisted with the mantra of a two-state solution, but in Washington the previous week Netanyahu stood alongside Donald Trump as the latter broke with the traditional diplomatic precedent, declaring his administration amenable to a one-state solution, provided both sides backed this alternative.
Some well-intentioned observers look upon this as a vaguely hopeful sign. After all, the two-state option has pretty much been dead in the water for a long time. Any hope that the Oslo accords of 1993 may have provided for such a solution have more or less perished in the interim, amid the relentless expansion of settlements.
Netanyahu still formally stands for a two-state outcome while insisting on Israeli security supremacy across any so-called Palestinian state, thereby effectively pre-empting any conceivable notion of sovereignty, while also insisting on the recognition of Israel as a specifically Jewish state. Meanwhile, key members of his coalition cabinet, including Naftali Bennett, favour the annexation of about 60 per cent of the West Bank, with the remaining non-contiguous enclaves granted a degree of autonomy. That’s their version of a one-state solution. It’s different from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s backing for an annexation of the entire West Bank with full citizenship rights for all Palestinians.
Rivlin glosses over a key issue for the Zionists, namely that a truly democratic binational state would inevitably erode Israel’s self-ordained character as a specifically Jewish state, amid the prospect of Palestinian Muslims and Christians eventually outnumbering Jews. But then, the only one-state alternative is a demonstrably apartheid state that would face progressively greater international opprobrium — and possibly even the kind of sanctions and boycotts that helped to bring down the South African variant.
It was perhaps because he recognises this likelihood that, at a meeting of his Likud party on Monday, Netanyahu pushed back slightly against outright annexationists and settlement expansionists, saying that while Trump’s ascendancy was obviously a great victory for Israel, there were some key differences with the US administration. After all, at his joint press conference with Netanyahu, the Trump had somehow been persuaded to say, “I’d like to see you hold back on the settlements for a little bit. We’ll work something out.”
Yup, just “for a little bit”. It’s almost certainly not the wrath of Trump that Netanyahu fears. He knows that crossing too many red lines on the wrong side of the green line could transform international wariness into outright hostility, notwithstanding Israel’s deepening bromance with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, based in large part on mutual hatred of Iran and its regional influence.
He likely sees the status quo, plus incremental “facts on the ground” that render a two-state solution all but impossible, as his best option. In other words, a no-state solution, as far as the Palestinians are concerned. Whether or not he endures in power for very long, that remains the likeliest outcome for the foreseeable future.