For Palestinians, a silver lining in Netanyahu's remarks on statehood

Even as Netanyahu tried to walk back his campaign vow opposing a Palestinian state, Palestinians said the remarks revealed the Israeli leader's true attitudes and would help their cause.

Majdi Mohammed/AP
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attended a special meeting of the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah on Thursday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resounding victory, just a day after he vowed that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch, may have sounded like a death knell for Palestinian statehood.

Indeed, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday that achieving a two-state solution now appears impossible.

But some Palestinians see a silver lining to Mr. Netanyahu’s election victory on such promises, arguing that it lays bare his – and Israel’s – lack of commitment to the two-state solution. That plays directly into the hands of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which since December has been accelerating efforts to secure Palestinian rights through the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other international bodies rather than through negotiations.

“What Netanyahu said wasn’t electioneering – that’s him,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters in East Jerusalem Thursday afternoon. “Today the international community, and Israelis who believe in two states, must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us in order to preserve the two-state solution.”

Mr. Erekat spoke directly after a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee, which Thursday set up a committee to implement a March 5 decision to end PA security coordination with Israel.

While prominent Palestinian politicians have routinely threatened to end such coordination, which is widely credited with keeping calm in the West Bank and thwarting terrorist attacks against Israelis, Erekat says this time it’s for real.

He promised that there would be action within two weeks and that the PA would stop upholding its obligations for security coordination under the Oslo accords, though he declined to offer specific scenarios.

However, he held out hope for a return to negotiations if Netanyahu apologized on television and said he would recognize the Palestinian state and end settlement activity.

"If he says that ... I'll go see him now – now,” said Erekat, emphasizing that a two-state solution is the only option for both Israelis and Palestinians. “I’m not doing the Israelis a favor when I negotiate with them ... and they should not feel that they are doing me a favor – it’s a common interest."

A clear departure on statehood

Some in Israel have chalked up Netanyahu’s comments to 11th-hour campaigning, after polls just days before the election showed him trailing his leftist opponents by a margin of 20 percent, and argue that it is not a formal reversal of his landmark 2009 speech declaring his support for Palestinian statehood.

Indeed, Netanyahu was already trying to walk back his comments on Thursday, saying in an interview with MSNBC that his position had not changed, and that he supported “a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution,” while adding the caveat that under current circumstances it is “not achievable.”

But his statement Monday on Israeli TV that “anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands, is giving attack grounds to radical Islam against the state of Israel,” marked a clear departure from his 2009 speech, when he declared his willingness to meet Arab leaders anywhere from the Syrian capital of Damascus to Jerusalem to the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

The prime minister, then newly elected for his second term, delivered the speech at the conservative Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center, named after the Israeli and Egyptian leaders who signed a historic peace agreement in 1979.

At the time, some thought perhaps Netanyahu would be the courageous right-wing leader who would boldly follow in the footsteps of Menachem Begin and finally end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But he and Mr. Abbas have failed to make any substantial progress on a peace deal in the past five years, with talks collapsing a year ago. He repeatedly has cited the rise of the self-described Islamic State as part of a tide of Islamist fanaticism that threatens Israel from all sides, including from Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Campaign appeal resonated

During the campaign, Netanyahu promoted himself as the sole leader who could protect Israelis. And it appeared to work wonders. In the southern cities hardest-hit by Hamas rockets in last summer’s Gaza war, his Likud party and its rightist ally Israel Beytenu – which ran on a single ticket in 2013 –increased their support by as much as 49 percent.

Even in the traditionally left-wing communities along Gaza’s border, the two parties matched or surpassed their performance in 2013. In Kibbutz Nir Am, where a squad of Hamas militants surfaced in a cross-border tunnel attack during the war, support for Likud/Beytenu nearly tripled.

Depending on one’s perspective, Netanyahu was either stirring up or getting in sync with a growing Israeli view that peace with Arab neighbors is either impossible or inadvisable. After three Gaza conflicts, a war in Lebanon, and the second Palestinian intifada, all within the past decade, Israeli popular support for a two-state solution fell last summer to a record low, two decades after the Oslo peace accords were signed.

“He’s no Begin … He’s an ideologue,” says Husam Zumlot, senior foreign policy adviser for Abbas’s Fatah Party, who describes Netanyahu’s victory as a reflection of an Israeli shift toward a “collective psyche of fear” that was engineered during the prime minister’s previous terms. “Therefore this also seriously needs to open our eyes to what happened to Israel as a society,” he adds. “We can no longer claim that a negotiating table is going to solve this.”

Mistrust extends beyond Netanyahu

Indeed, on the streets of Ramallah there is little hope that Israel will support a two-state solution, no matter who is prime minister.

“Not as long as Israel exists,” says Rasha, a young woman shopping at an interior decorating store at a middle-class mall in Ramallah, before collecting her purchases and walking out.

“Even if an Arab Israeli became prime minister, the reality of poor Palestinian people like us would still be bad,” says Osama, the cashier.

Every move made by Israel, even if it is said to be in support of Palestinian freedom and statehood, is a ploy, says Iyad Waheeb, a middle-aged man who worked in Israel for 10 years up until 2005.

“The Israeli government is making Palestinian people like [pawns] in the chess game,” he says. And what about Netanyahu’s vow this week that he is against a Palestinian state? “We can say that that’s his move.”

The Palestinian leadership, however, is by no means giving up. Rather it is underscoring that it’s more urgent than ever to achieve a Palestinian state along 1967 borders, living side by side with Israel, due to the rising extremism in the region and Netanyahu’s resort to “racist” rhetoric.

“So we cannot sit still,” says Mr. Zumlot. “We must provide an alternative for both the Palestinians and Israelis because evidently the Israelis are leaderless.”

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