In discussing his solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a Diaspora audience last week at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summoned the ghost of his Likud Party’s first prime minister, Menachem Begin.
“The only possible solution is that they will have autonomy over themselves,” Netanyahu said, “but not the ability to harm us.” Which begs the question: What exactly does “autonomy” mean? That was the term used by Begin in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and resulted from his conviction that the West Bank — Judea and Samaria, he called it — were Israel’s biblically ordained possession. Autonomy didn’t mean independent governance; it meant some form of controlled administration.
Then came the breakthrough Oslo Accords in the 1990s and with them the mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestinians. Suddenly, there were glimmers of hope for some form of peaceful, two-state resolution. Those aspirations were heightened when Mahmoud Abbas succeeded Yasser Arafat as the Palestinian leader and promised a non-violent approach to pursuing Palestinian statehood. With that change, observers believed that Israel finally had what it wanted from the Palestinians: recognition and an interlocutor pledged to non-violence.
But that’s not what happened. Abbas didn’t live up to his hype and turned out to be a wholly ineffective leader. Beyond that, he made no real effort to pursue a peaceful solution. And for his part, Netanyahu — motivated either by ideology or political expediency, or both — hasn’t exactly distinguished himself as a consistent advocate for a mutually beneficial solution either. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2009 that, as prime minister, he endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state. Then, in 2015, he changed his mind.
In describing his current view of the solution, Netanyahu told the Diaspora gathering: “West of the Jordan, Israel and Israel alone will be responsible for security. It’s not just a question of hot pursuit. It’s also having the ability to be there all the time.” That’s the view that has been termed “a Palestinian state-minus,” and is a far cry from the kind of independence and authority that the term “autonomy” would normally imply.
We suspect that Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist coalition partners, who he depends on to rule, think his current position goes too far and gives away too much. But Netanyahu is doing what he does best: surviving politically by doing two things at once, all in an attempt to stand still.
The truth is that Netanyahu’s vision will satisfy no one. But until the Palestinians select and empower a leader willing to engage with Israel in a coherent and respectful way, there will be no other party with whom to negotiate — leaving Netanyahu and Israel to create a new reality while ignoring the needs, hopes, dreams and desires of a growing, but increasingly politically impotent, Palestinian people.