In a column that appeared four days ago, "Is Netanyahu Turning Left?" I relied on David Weisberg's analysis of this topic and drew some conclusions about it (principally that this is a matter of the prime minister's ego, pointing out how that has been the case for Israeli prime ministers since 1992). Here follow opinions of other informed observers, in agreement or not about this analysis.
Another analyst, Daniel Tauber, also worries about the prime minister's intentions in a Jerusalem Post column today, "Netanyahu Means It." He begins with guns blazing:
When Nicolas Sarkozy was caught on an open mic lamenting to Barack Obama about how Binyamin Netanyahu "is a liar," Israelis were aghast. Yet when Netanyahu talks about Palestinian statehood, many Israelis, including Netanyahu's allies, seem to think the same thing.
Tauber notes that Netanyahu's June 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University declaring that "we are ready to agree to a real peace agreement, a demilitarized Palestinian state" was widely seen as a tactical appeasement of the Obama administration, not a strategic shift. In other words, he was widely seen as lying, and for good reason:
it was easy to imagine that Netanyahu was merely compromising on a semantic principle ("statehood" vs. "autonomy"), but not the substance (since it would theoretically be demilitarized) in the service of tangible gains. With the passage of time, however, that explanation has become less plausible.
Tauber offers several pieces of evidence in support of Netanyahu actually meaning what he says. To begin with, he began talking up this issue:
At first, Netanyahu referenced Palestinian statehood sparingly; such as at the UN General Assembly or in joint press conferences. The infrequency of the statements evinced a politician who may have taken a public position which was not necessarily his personal belief, but which political circumstances had compelled him to adopt. But since then, the frequency of Netanyahu's two-state declarations has increased – even as US pressure on Israel has all but evaporated (notwithstanding US Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts).
Second, his statements have had a heartfelt quality:
In early April[ 2013], Netanyahu told the press, "My interest is what's good for Israel and I have no desire to head toward a bi-national state, a situation I oppose" and that Israel should be prepared for "relinquishing land" in order "to ensure the Jewish and democratic character of Israel."
In early May, he told a meeting of senior Foreign Ministry officials that a peace agreement was necessary to "prevent Israel from becoming a bi-national state."
In June he warned the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee against "a bi-national state, which Israel does not want" and which is "not good" for Israel.
Later that month, Netanyahu reiterated, "we don't want a bi-national country."
Finally, Netanyahu has forwarded his own framework for a permanent solution.
He most clearly delineated this framework in a May 2011 speech to the Knesset. Among other things, it included a demilitarized Palestinian state, a long-term IDF presence along the Jordan River and that Israel maintain the "settlement blocs." Those last two points may come off like benefits for Israel at first blush, but their unspoken corollaries are relinquishing Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and ceding land outside the settlement "blocs" – which could mean up to 90 percent of Judea and Samaria and the destruction of many Jewish communities. Netanyahu called these parameters "the principles that guide my path."
And they appear to continue to guide him. They were reportedly used by Netanyahu's envoy Isaac Molho in negotiations with Saeb Erekat in February 2012. More recently, an anonymous Likud minister told Haaretz in June that "Netanyahu understands that for a peace agreement, it will be necessary to withdraw from more than 90% of the West Bank" and to relinquish Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley.
Looking at this record as a whole, Tauber concludes that
Taken separately, the Bar-Ilan speech, the declarations in favor of Palestinian statehood made since, the newfound adherence to the demographic argument, and Netanyahu's peace parameters, might be explained away as tactical maneuvers, and what Netanyahu actually says might be discarded as lies and posturing.
Taken together, however, they constitute four years and counting of a consistent policy in favor of Palestinian statehood.
And I belatedly note Jeff Barak's June 30 analysis along the same lines:
Netanyahu seems to be moving further and further away from the Likud party he nominally heads. ... Some commentators are already forecasting a Ariel Sharon-like moment for Netanyahu, in which the prime minister throws off the ideological shackles of his party and sets out in a new direction involving the evacuation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the unilateral drawing of temporary borders until a final peace deal can be achieved. Such a move would run contrary to all Netanyahu's past behavior, but with the support of coalition partner Yesh Atid and the Labor Party from the opposition, it would not be politically impossible.
(July 9, 2013)
July 24, 2013 update: David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy also sees a change in Netanyahu, specifically in a speech he gave on June 27, when
he declared, "we do not want a binational country." People who meet Netanyahu privately in recent weeks say he now often talks about the threat of binationalism as a rationale for supporting a Palestinian state even if he has opposed it for decades as a security threat. Netanyahu elaborated on this at the start of a cabinet meeting this Sunday. In remarks released by his office, he stated that holding talks is a "vital strategic interest" because Israel is keen on "preventing the creation of a binational state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea."
In short, Netanyahu is saying the status quo is unsustainable. ... I have carefully followed Netanyahu's public statements over decades, and this theme of preventing Israel from sliding into binationalism is one that he has largely avoided.
July 26, 2013 updates: (1) A Dialogue Poll carried out July 23 of 511 adult Israelis (including Israeli Arabs) and published in Ha'aretz asked "Do you believe the prime minister is committed to a two state solution?: 34 percent answered affirmatively, 59 percent negatively, with 7 percent don't know and 2 percent no answer. Comment: The Israeli public seems to be behind the curve on Netanyahu's evolution.
(2) Ze'ev Elkin, Israel's deputy foreign minister and a member of the Likud party, said today that, for an accord with the Palestinian Authority, Netanyahu would agree "to a Palestinian state on 86 percent of the territory," referring to the West Bank. (Netanyahu himself has not specified how much of the West Bank he would relinquish to the PA.)
(3) Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, writes in a piece mostly devoted to Iran:
Don't be fooled by the recent U.S. announcement that peace talks might soon resume. The fact that the Israeli side will be led by Tzipi Livni — a coalition partner Netanyahu doesn't like or trust — and that, even before the talks were announced, another of his cabinet members anonymously declared them little more than a ruse — shows how seriously Bibi takes them.
July 29, 2013 update: Netanyahu's deputy foreign minister and his Likud colleague Ze'ev Elkin, has added his voice to those worried about the prime minister's direction, telling the Times of Israel that he
"is going against the flow of his own party. He's paying a political price day after day, hour after hour, for his belief in a Palestinian state... It's very hard for him in his party." Asked whether this meant Netanyahu would ultimately lose control of the Likud, Elkin said he didn't know.
July 31, 2013 update: Writing from a leftist perspective, Ben Caspit has doubts whether Netanyahu, whom he calls "a weak, pusillanimous leader," has crossed the Rubicon in terms of reaching a two-state agreement with the Palestinian Authority. He notes the evidence:
The proponents of this heartening theory resort to telltale signs, trying to read the map in a way that suits their needs. In recent weeks, so they say, Netanyahu has been talking about the need to prevent the establishment of one state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River; "a state of all its citizens," where Israel would lose its Jewish majority within a few years. If it wants to continue to be a dominant Jewish state, Israel will be forced to turn into a South Africa. That's the narrative of the Israeli peace camp in all its glory.
The right is scornful and dismissive of those fearing "one state," trying to blow off this argument and refute it in any way it can. Until not long ago, Netanyahu was deeply rooted in that camp. Yet lo and behold, he started using, almost overnight, the term "binational state." Some people compare the term that Netanyahu now uses to the day when Ariel Sharon started using the term "occupation." Those optimists further note that Netanyahu has long lost his Likud party which has veered sharply to the right, having more opponents than proponents to the two-state solution.
Caspit is skeptical, given Netanyahu's character:
This is a romantic view that is based more on the wishful thinking and personal hopes of its proponents than the facts on the ground. It thrives in the back rooms of Israel's political corridors, in hushed conversations among well-placed associates. It is based on barely perceptible winks and nods among (self-proclaimed) Netanyahu mavens or some other fly-by-night kibitzers.
Aug. 1, 2013 updates: (1) Caroline Glick does not see Netanyahu moving left so much as a weakling:
Netanyahu knows that Israel cannot survive without Judea and Samaria. He knows what the Muslim Brotherhood is. He knows the nature of the Iranian regime. He knows that the PLO is no different from Hamas. Their goal is the same – they want to destroy Israel. Netanyahu knows that Obama is hostile to Israel and that he will not lift a finger to block Iran from becoming a nuclear power. So why is he going along with their insanity? In bowing to US pressure and approving the release of 104 terrorist murderers from prison, Netanyahu behaved like a coward. In bowing to US pressure not to bomb Iran's nuclear installations, Netanyahu is being a coward.
(2) Martin Sherman of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies, hitherto a gentle critic of Netanyahu, lets loose today at "Resign, just resign!"
recent developments reveal a disturbing – indeed, dramatic – erosion in [Netanyahu's] strategic perspectives and policy preferences that make it impossible to justify his continued incumbency – even for a relatively restrained and respectful critic such as myself.
Sherman then documents those recent developments and then returns to the 104, which he calls "a staggering strategic surrender by Israel." He concludes:
Netanyahu has now embraced a policy he spent decades berating, resisting and mobilizing publics at home and abroad to oppose. He thus has either failed to implement a policy he believes in, or is implementing a policy he does not believe in. Whichever is true, this is an untenable situation which cannot continue. Accordingly the only act of true leadership left for Netanyahu is to resign, and to resign without delay.
Aug. 5, 2013 update: Tzachi Hanegbi, a Likud Knesset member known to be close to Netanyahu, has this to say about the prime minister to Al-Monitor: "If he believes that the Palestinians have gone the necessary distance on such issues as security, Jerusalem, the settlement blocs and refugees and have reached their own red lines, Netanyahu will be prepared to take huge steps in their direction."
Also noteworthy is this exchange:
Al-Monitor: Netanyahu wouldn't have entered the negotiations were it not for US pressure.
Hanegbi: There is no US pressure.
This confirms my analysis, which is that Netanyahu has made the shift for his own reasons, not because of external pressure.
once again, a situation is emerging in which we have an Israeli government, whether willingly or unwillingly, embracing – or at least facilitating – the very policy its electoral constituency expected it to prevent.
Sherman then runs through the ministers – Netanyahu, Moshe Ya'alon, Gideon Sa'ar, Gilad Erdan, Israel Katz, Yuval Steinitz, Uzi Landau, Yair Shamir, Naftali Bennett, and Uri Ariel – "whose political credo and career were centered around a commitment to prevent precisely developments which the government, whose existence is dependent on their support, is now inching inexorably towards." He concludes:
Unless the growing signs of rancor inside coalition ranks coalesce into a successful endeavor to stem the tide of Israeli submission, future historians are likely to point to the current government as inflicting the most devastating blow to the spirit of, and the belief in, the Zionist enterprise.
July 13, 2014 update: The debate over Netanyahu turning left fizzled away over the past year, perhaps because he said or did nothing more to fuel this speculation. Now, in the heat of war with Hamas, Times of Israel editor David Horovitz dwells on a press conference on July 11 and finds that "The prime minister spoke his mind as rarely, if ever, before." Horovitz goes so far as to remark that "Nobody will ever be able to claim in the future that he [Netanyahu] didn't tell us what he really thinks." The results are reassuring for those of us who want him to remain true to his principles.
He made explicitly clear that he could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank. He indicated that he sees Israel standing almost alone on the frontlines against vicious Islamic radicalism, while the rest of the as-yet free world does its best not to notice the march of extremism. And he more than intimated that he considers the current American, John Kerry-led diplomatic team to be, let's be polite, naive. ...
Netanyahu has stressed often in the past that he doesn't want Israel to become a binational state — implying that he favors some kind of accommodation with and separation from the Palestinians. But on Friday he made explicit that this could not extend to full Palestinian sovereignty. Why? Because, given the march of Islamic extremism across the Middle East, he said, Israel simply cannot afford to give up control over the territory immediately to its east, including the eastern border — that is, the border between Israel and Jordan, and the West Bank and Jordan.
The priority right now, Netanyahu stressed, was to "take care of Hamas." But the wider lesson of the current escalation was that Israel had to ensure that "we don't get another Gaza in Judea and Samaria." Amid the current conflict, he elaborated, "I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan."
Insisting upon ongoing Israeli security oversight inside and at the borders of the West Bank spells, Horovitz goes on,
the end to the notion of Netanyahu consenting to the establishment of a Palestinian state. A less-than-sovereign entity? Maybe, though this will never satisfy the Palestinians or the international community. A fully sovereign Palestine? Out of the question. He wasn't saying that he doesn't support a two-state solution. He was saying that it's impossible. This was not a new, dramatic change of stance by the prime minister. It was a new, dramatic exposition of his long-held stance.
Netanyahu got really blunt:
Never mind what the naive outsiders recommend, "I told John Kerry and General Allen, the Americans' expert, 'We live here, I live here, I know what we need to ensure the security of Israel's people.'"
Netanyahu focused on a concept he called "adjacent territory."
He scoffed at those many experts who have argued that holding onto territory for security purposes is less critical in the modern technological era, and argued by contrast that the closer your enemies are, physically, to your borders, the more they'll try to tunnel under those borders and fire rockets over them. ...
"If we were to pull out of Judea and Samaria, like they tell us to," he said bitterly — leaving it to us to fill in who the many and various foolish "theys" are — "there'd be a possibility of thousands of tunnels" being dug by terrorists to attack Israel, he said. There were 1,200 tunnels dug in the 14-kilometer border strip between Egypt and Gaza alone, he almost wailed, which Egypt had sealed. "At present we have a problem with the territory called Gaza," the prime minister said. But the West Bank is 20 times the size of Gaza. Israel, he said flatly, was not prepared "to create another 20 Gazas" in the West Bank.
Mar. 6, 2015 update: In a pre-election scoop that has sparked much debate, Nahum Barnea has published information from a secret August 2013 document – a month after my original piece asking if Netanyahu is turning left – that shows "far-reaching Israeli concessions" to the Palestinians. Pace Barnea:
The document shows that Netanyahu had offered what appeared to be drastic concessions to the Palestinian leadership on a number of core issues, including land swaps, a potential deal regarding Jerusalem and even a limited right of return for Palestinians.
Among these concessions, the document includes what seems to be an opening for an Israeli return to the 1967 Green Line borders – a longstanding Palestinian demand that Netanyahu has rejected on numerous occasions as a precondition for a peace deal – on the basis of a "mile-for-mile" exchange ratio.
It reveals that not only was Netanyahu willing to trade land with the Palestinians, but was also amenable to offering them full restitution for lands seized by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War.
As part of a proposed land swap, the document lays out the framework for uprooting a large number of West Bank settlements and even stipulated leaving some settlers in the West Bank under Palestinian Authority control.
Regarding Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their capital and has been a non-negotiable point for Israel, the document's wording is more careful, but not devoid of significance, offering an implicit recognition of the Palestinian claim over East Jerusalem.
The document also shows the Palestinians were offered a permanent foothold in the Jordan Valley, an area which Israel was reluctant to concede control over during the previous round of peace talks. That last round of negotiations almost fell apart after a lawmaker from Netanyahu's Likud party spearheaded a bill that would annex the territory to Israel, effectively taking it off the table.
Furthermore, there was surprising Israeli leeway regarding the much-debated Palestinian right of return for those displaced on the eve of Israel's formation in 1948. According to the document, Israel offered Palestinian "refugees" the right of return on a personal – as opposed to national – basis.
The article relating to Jerusalem was vaguely worded and appended with a warning: "Any solution must address the historical, social, cultural and effectual ties of both peoples to the city and offer protection to the holy sites."
There is a vast and irreconcilable divide between Netanyahu's hawkish speeches and the instructions he conveyed to his representative in the talks.
Mar. 9, 2017 update: Ahron Shapiro of AIJAC reviews the situation at "Reports: Netanyahu has secretly been advancing regional peace plan." He summarizes two accounts that reveal backchannel negotiations and initiatives that Netanyahu made with the Palestinians and Arab states. They are:
Brigadier General (Ret.) Michael Herzog's landmark feature-length article in The American Interest is written as an insider's memoir of participation in former US Secretary of State John Kerry's nine-month peace initiative of 2013-2014. (Michael Herzog is the brother of Labor party leader Isaac Herzog.)
Barak Ravid's exposé in Ha'aretz of a subsequent regional peace plan that Netanyahu had discussed with Israeli Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog
According to Herzog's account, Netanyahu was immersed intimately, in detail, and on a daily basis with backchannel peace negotiations, both before and during Kerry's initiative. ...
Herzog reveals that under Netanyahu, Israel had been conducting backchannel negotiations with the Palestinians. "These were what might be characterized as 'Track 1.5' - carried out by non-governmental people but with the knowledge of their leaders, who blessed them and awaited their outcome."
According to Herzog, the very public Kerry Initiative - which imposed a nine-month deadline for Palestinian and Israeli negotiators to resolve the conflict - didn't replace the backchannel track, but ran concurrently with it, complicating the negotiations. ...
Contrary to Kerry's claims later, Israel had informed the US and the Palestinian side that Palestinian prisoner releases used to bring the Palestinian side to the table would be accompanied by settlement or Jerusalem housing announcements in order to mollify Israeli public criticism over the prisoner releases. These announcements were not surprises.
After the collapse of the Kerry initiative, Ravid indicates that Netanyahu kept at it.
In a cabinet meeting on February 19, Netanyahu confirmed reports that he had participated in a secret summit in March 2016 that took place at Aqaba, Jordan, involving Kerry and the leaders of Egypt and Jordan. ... Netanyahu told the ministers that he was the one to initiate the summit.
Nor is that all:
According to Ravid, Netanyahu sought Herzog's help in forming a unity government to advance peace ... [and showed a willingness] for territorial compromise in a two-state solution with the Palestinians and a reining in of construction in the settlements.