Netanyahu: the end of the two-state solution?
Cover Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Israel_Palestine_binational_one-state_button.gif
Benjamin Netanyahu has often been referred to as the “magician” of Israeli politics. With four terms as prime minister dating back to 1996, Netanyahu has attracted support for his Likud party from a diverse base, merging secular right-wing and ultra-Orthodox Jewish voters. However, Netanyahu’s magic finally seems to be wearing off. Having failed to gain a majority in either of the elections this year, Netanyahu has been forced to propose increasingly radical policies. In an attempt at holding off the rival Blue and White party, Netanyahu hit worldwide headlines with his promise to annex the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea should he be elected, a move which would endanger the prospect of any imminent solution to the complex Israel-Palestine issue. This political powerplay ultimately failed to secure him a majority. Nevertheless, the incumbent prime minister has been asked to form a coalition government by Israeli president Reuven Rivlin. Should he succeed, it may be the death knell of the two-state solution.
Netanyahu was faced with a similar situation back in May when the first election also returned a divided Knesset. After his coalition quickly broke down, he forced the dissolution of the government rather than allow rival Blue and White leader, Benny Gantz, a chance at power. Netanyahu now has several paths to forming a government. The most obvious would be partnership with ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman; but to do this he would need to find a way around Lieberman’s refusal to sit in a government with religious parties whose support Netanyahu also needs. As these negotiations continue over the coming days, five million unenfranchised Palestinians living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza are left to hope, if he does continue as Prime Minister, that Netanyahu’s intended annexation does not go ahead.
While pre-election pledges, especially ones in such a tight campaign, are by no means concrete, the international community is right to take the prospect of annexation seriously. Netanyahu’s promise comes after a wave of legislation by the Knesset aimed at preparing Israel for encroachment into the West Bank. The Israeli parliament passed the Ariel University Bill which allows universities and colleges to be founded in West Bank settlements outside the country’s sovereign borders. In effect, this lays the foundation for a future annexation of the area, a move which would bring to an end any real prospect of a two-state solution.
The two-state solution has been the centre of many attempts at peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian authorities, the latest in 2013-14. This idea proposes the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state adjacent to Israel, encompassing all areas of Palestinian-inhabited territory: East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. The boundary between the two states to the east of Jerusalem has been subject to intense debate and a major reason why talks have been unsuccessful thus far, despite polls in both Israel and Palestine consistently showing a majority in favour of this solution. Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox Jewish backers, however, favour expansion rather than concession.
The so-called New State Solution has attempted to break the deadlock by proposing a Palestinian state in the Gaza strip and northern Sinai Peninsula, not including the West Bank. However, Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank have rejected any offer on the table; it may take intervention from other Arab powers to encourage a compromise. This prospect of a New State Solution may provide hope to many who seek an end to tension in the region, as it tries to resolve major disagreements over borders and the prospect of diving Jerusalem itself. However, if Netanyahu’s annexation goes ahead, it is unlikely that any solution involving a separate Palestinian state will continue to be viable.
With growing numbers of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and Israeli institutions increasingly in East Jerusalem, was the two-state solution already dead in the water? As prime minister, Netanyahu has actively encouraged settlements in the West Bank where numbers of Israeli settlers are estimated to be nearing half a million or more. Annexation would encourage further territorial intermingling of Israeli and Palestinian populations making the process of drawing borders between two states even more complex. If finding an agreeable border was already difficult, with Palestinians split between the West Bank and the Gaza strip, finding contiguous territory for a separate Palestinian state was always a major stumbling block to this two-state solution. Is it therefore unfair to attribute the death of this idea to Netanyahu, or have his policies in his previous ministerial terms increasingly discounted the prospect of a Palestinian state? Either way, if Israel were to fully annex the West Bank as Netanyahu has promised, it would be the final nail in the coffin for the two-state solution.