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Netanyahu Could Save the Two-State Solution

His political future might depend on it

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images News

It could be his new coalition. Or maybe it’s his long heart-to-hearts with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Perhaps it’s the realization, given recent polls and the far-right mutiny in his party, that the current term will likely be his last.

Whatever the case, Benjamin Netanyahu is finally embracing the two-state solution. The shift has been quiet, but its consequences could be monumental.

Until now, Netanyahu has been the exception to the historical rule that, when it comes to peace with the Arabs, Israeli leaders say one thing and do another. When the peace question came up in his last term—Netanyahu rarely brought it up himself—the prime minister offered heavily qualified support for Palestinian statehood. But it was clear to all that his heart wasn’t in it. Indeed, if Bibi can claim one defining achievement these past four years, it is having successfully navigated the world’s Middle East agenda away from Israeli-Palestinian peace and toward the Iranian nuclear threat.

But as Kerry continues his quest to revive peace talks after five years of American shuttle diplomacy, Netanyahu is suddenly striking up a new and unfamiliar tune. It isn’t just that he is suddenly talking about the Palestinians every chance he gets. He is talking about them in radically different terms than he used to, appropriating the left-wing talking point that the Jewish state faces demographic annihilation if it doesn’t make peace.

"If we go into direct negotiations, it is likely to be very hard but the alternative of a binational state is one we do not want," he told a Knesset committee last month.

He also appears poised to make concessions that would’ve been unthinkable for him a few years ago. Ha’aretz recently quoted a “senior Likud cabinet minister” saying that Netanyahu is prepared to cede “more than 90 percent of the West Bank.” (Asked about the report last week by an Italian newspaper, Netanyahu didn’t deny its substance, merely stating, “that it is the minister’s opinion.”)

Ninety-something percent won’t cut it for the Palestinians—any deal would require 100 percent, with equal land swaps to accommodate major Jewish settlements. But the report is nonetheless significant because it means that Netanyahu would enter negotiations with essentially the same positions that his center-left predecessor Ehud Olmert did in 2007. Indeed, when you step back, the mere fact that a Likud prime minister would ponder near-complete withdrawal from the West Bank is astounding. As former U.S. Middle East mediator Aaron David Miller wrote in his book The Much Too Promised Land, “I remember in early 2000 how impressed I was by [then-Labor Prime Minister Ehud] Barak’s willingness to consider 80 percent withdrawal from the West Bank. No Israeli prime minister had ever contemplated such an offer.”

By the January 2001 Taba talks, Barak had upped his offer to 97 percent. Olmert, by the time of his September 2008 indictment, had raised his to 100 percent. And both, despite pledging as candidates to keep Jerusalem united, had agreed to divide the city along ethnic lines (Netanyahu has also long said he would never divide Jerusalem, but he has been conspicuously silent on the matter since the January election—and was conveniently in China on Jerusalem Day.)

Could the momentum of peace negotiations, and the opportunity to secure his place in history, push Netanyahu into similarly far-reaching concessions? We may never find out. John Kerry ended his fifth mission to the Middle East last week without a deal to resume final-status negotiations. He is scheduled to return later this week. While there are reports of progress, it is by no means certain that he will succeed, with the Palestinians keeping open the option of returning to the U.N. in the fall to press for membership in more world bodies, like the International Criminal Court.

“You ask these right-wing ministers why they are so calm despite Bibi’s new rhetoric,” one veteran Israeli reporter told me, “and they say that they put their faith in Abbas [not to negotiate].”

The current deadlock stems from Palestinian demands that Israel freeze all settlement construction and agree up front that their state will be based on the 1967 lines—preconditions which, Netanyahu is fond of saying (not incorrectly) were never placed on his predecessors. The stonewalling strategy made sense so long as Netanyahu seemed utterly uninterested in meaningful concessions and led a cabinet that was even less so.

But times have changed. Netanyahu’s current coalition is more centrist than his last one. His chief peace negotiator, Tzipi Livni—who was also Olmert’s chief negotiator—is Israel’s most prominent advocate for the two-state solution. And Kerry, unlike Hillary Clinton, seems prepared to invest the necessary diplomatic capital to see any talks succeed.

Kerry, for his part, is reported to be floating compromise formulas which would see Israel freeze construction outside the major blocs and agree to base talks on President Obama’s May 2011 speech (which calls for a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines with swaps, as well as recognition of Israel as a Jewish state). Israel seems prepared to accept these compromises. The Palestinians should, too.

It could be that ninety-something percent will prove to be Netanyahu’s bottom line, rather than his starting point, that he won’t budge on Jerusalem and will continue to insist on other non-starters, such as a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley. But even so, getting a Likud prime minister on the record offering ninety-plus percent of the West Bank would strike a tremendous blow to the idea of Greater Israel and create a baseline from which all future Israeli discussions about territorial compromise would begin.

Were Netanyahu to surprise the world by offering Olmert-like terms—terms that, with some American gap-bridging, Abbas could accept—he would be the one Israeli leader actually able to implement a deal. "If he leads it, they'll go with him," said the Ha’aretz source of his fellow Likud ministers. "Even those who today present themselves as right-wing." True, Naftali Bennett’s party would try to bring down the government, but Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich has already pledged to be Netanyahu’s “safety net” (joining the coalition or supporting it from outside) if necessary to advance peace. Getting an agreement passed in the public referendum that Netanyahu promises would be even less of a hurdle: Polls have long shown broad Israeli support for the compromises necessary for an agreement.

Earlier this year, I wrote that I believed Netanyahu’s intransigence to be the major obstacle to an agreement. I remain skeptical that Netanyahu will be the leader to make peace with the Palestinians, but less so than I was then, if only because his political survival may now depend on it. Polls show the right-wing bloc losing its majority, and with the growing Tea Party-ization of the Likud—and the presence of a plausible challenger in Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon—it’s not even clear Netanyahu will have a party to lead in the next elections. If Netanyahu wants a fourth term—and he does—he needs to shake things up. The Palestinian leadership should put him in a position where he can.

“I’m convinced that, if the circumstances are right, he will go much farther than people think,” Dennis Ross, Obama’s former Middle East envoy, told me a few months ago. “Abu Mazen told me he thought there was no way Bibi could do a deal. I said, ‘How do you know? You haven’t tested him.’”

Ben Birnbaum is a writer living in Jerusalem. He last wrote for The New Republic about "The End of the Two-State Solution," and can be followed on Twitter @Ben_Birnbaum