Netanyahu may be standing in the way of a two-state solution. But he is far from alone

(Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Netanyahu may be standing in the way of a two-state solution. But he is far from alone

Opinion piece Israel-Hamas

Raphael S. Cohen

January 20, 2024

It is understandable why President Biden, after sticking his political neck out for Israel for months, is reportedly frustrated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Rockets continued to fall on Tel Aviv when Biden visited Israel to show his support. He sent U.S. forces to the region to deter Hezbollah and, more recently, push back on Houthi piracy. He pushed for billions of dollars in additional military aid and supported Israel in Gaza even as it became increasingly unpopular.

In return, Biden has asked Netanyahu to commit to a Palestinian state once the war between Israel and Hamas is over. And Netanyahu just publicly said no.

The United States is now reported to be actively working with other leaders and parties in Israel on the future of Gaza and the Palestinians in general. The problem is that opposition to a Palestinian state extends far beyond the prime minister’s office.

Netanyahu undeniably has his own reasons for rejecting the Palestinian state. His government relies on the support of far-right parties that advocate the mass expulsion of Gazans from the Gaza Strip. If he supported Palestinian statehood, the coalition would disintegrate and his government would collapse. And opinion polls indicate that if new elections are held, Netanyahu will be out of a job and facing legal problems.

Then there are the broader practicalities of implementing a two-state solution, demarcating everything from water rights to airspace and carving out geography from river to sea without bisecting Israel. The most daunting political problems would be the relocation of the 700,000 Israeli settlers to the West Bank and the perennial challenge of dealing with Jerusalem.

But there is also something deeper behind Netanyahu’s opposition: a fundamentally different understanding of the root cause of the October elections. 7 massacre and the current war.

In the American story, the context of Oct. 7 is the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process of the 1990s. In this telling sense, Israel’s grass-cutting approach of killing militants without simultaneously offering Palestinians real political or economic opportunities would be doomed to failure. Peace therefore starts with offering those opportunities and a path to a two-state solution.

In the Israeli version of events, the mistake was Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which gave Hamas a haven to plan, train for, and ultimately execute a relatively unhindered attack on Israel. Israel notes that it has not only allowed but also encouraged Qatar to funnel money into Gaza to improve living conditions, some of which was likely spent on weapons. Israel also claims that work permits, which allowed thousands of Gazans to earn higher wages in Israel, became a means for Hamas to gather intelligence.

According to Israel, a two-state solution would only make this problem worse. The Palestinian Authority is widely seen as weak and corrupt; Nearly nine in ten Palestinians want their president, Mahmoud Abbas, to resign. Meanwhile, 57% of Gazans and 82% of Palestinians in the West Bank approved of the Hamas attack in October, and overall support for the group has increased in both regions.

So, Israel asks, what could stop Hamas or a similar group from taking control of a Palestinian state, just as they did in Gaza?

This is not only Netanyahu’s view, but also Israel’s. According to the Pew Research Center, support among Israelis for a two-state solution has been declining for a decade. A survey conducted several months before the Hamas attack found that only 35% of Israelis thought two states could coexist peacefully. As Israeli President Isaac Herzog recently noted in Davos, no Israeli in their right mind is willing to think about peace agreements. Even if Netanyahu were to disappear from the political scene, such an Israeli opposition could continue to exist.

This leaves the United States with few levers to pull. It may offer plans to redraw the map, but that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. It may promise incentives such as normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia, but the fear of another October 1 will be the result. 7 wants to trump all possible advantages. Conditions could be attached to US military aid, but that could increase Israeli insecurities and, as a result, intransigence.

Perhaps the way forward is to start smaller. As Herzog noted, the average Israeli wants to know: Can we be promised real security in the future? After the trauma of Oct. 7, It will take time to build such trust. But his framing indicates where to start.

Israel’s military leaders have argued that its security requires planning for the wars that end and rebuild Gaza. Netanyahu has resisted such a discussion, but American pressure could change his analysis. If done well, reconstruction can foster the mutual trust necessary for a more lasting political settlement.

Such incrementalism will undoubtedly frustrate everyone, especially Palestinians who long for a state, as well as right-wing Israelis who oppose any thought of rebuilding Gaza, but also the Biden administration, which would prefer a big victory in this election year. But like any number of previous presidents, Biden is learning that while the dynamics of the Middle East may change, frustration is a constant.

Raphael S. Cohen is director of the Strategy and Doctrine program of Rand Corp.’s Project Air Force.


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