‘I believe that a real path towards a genuine peace with our Palestinian neighbors can finally be achieved’– Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
‘We will not accept any concessions to the Palestinians’– National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir
Benjamin Netanyahu and Itamar Ben Gvir will probably never need to confront each other over Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. “Our Palestinian neighbors” will almost certainly blow up any deal with Israel without anyone else’s help. Palestinian society long ago sent the message that an independent state is far from enough. They want all of Israel.
Netanyahu must know this. Normalization with Saudi Arabia will probably be conditioned upon some kind of concession to the Palestinians, yet the Palestinian concept of concessions could be too costly for Israel and other involved parties, including Saudi Arabia. They can all pass it off with a clear conscience.
Until then, Israel’s prime minister must ask himself: To grant or not to grant…whatever Saudi Arabia calls upon Netanyahu to offer the Palestinians, and whatever Ben Gvir calls upon him not to grant.
Normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia would expand the benefits of the Abraham Accords to establish relationships with Arab nations. In 2020, israel signed peace treaties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, and is now advancing toward a deal with the Saudis.
But Netanyahu faces a series of conflicts, contradictions and irreconcilable differences. How do we reconcile these differences? Probably, we don’t.
During his speech at the United Nations on Friday, Netanyahu implicitly contradicted his past positions on Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. He opened the door to concessions just as crucial allies in Jerusalem closed the door. Since the UN visit required a weeklong stay in New York City, he further isolated American Jews by persisting with his plans to sabotage the powers of Israel’s Supreme Court.
“The Abraham Accords heralded the dawn of a new age of peace…(a Saudi treaty) will encourage other Arab states to normalize relations with Israel,” Netanyahu said. “The Palestinians could greatly benefit from a broader peace. They should be part of the process, but they should not have a veto over the process.
“And I also believe that making peace with more Arab states would actually increase the prospects of making peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” he continued. “When the Palestinians see that most of the Arab world has reconciled itself to the Jewish state, they too will be more likely to abandon the fantasy of destroying Israel and finally embrace a path of genuine peace with it.”
That is about as specific as Netanyahu gets in explaining how the Palestinians will benefit. The most extreme partners in Netanyahu’s governing coalition are blunt about their expectations of Netanyahu.
“If there will be concessions for the Palestinians, we will not remain in the government,” said Ben Gvir, who heads the Otzma Yehudit party which has backed expanding Jewish communities in the West Bank and annexing said region, according to The Times of Israel. “Not just us, but the Religious Zionism party as well.”
The leader of Religious Zionism, Bezalel Smotrich, said a month ago that he will not accept any concessions for the Palestinians. After Netanyahu’s speech, he wrote on X, “We will bring peace for peace. We will continue to maintain Israel’s security, settle in all of its regions, developing along with all of the Middle East and the entire world.”
As vague as Smotrich’s statement may be, the phrase “settle in all of its regions” sticks out. It appears to mean that the government will continue to expand Jewish communities – better known as settlements – throughout Israel’s territories.
Thanks to Ben Gvir and Smotrich, Netanyahu was able to re-assume his post as prime minister after the last parliamentary election. Their parties occupy 14 of the Knesset seats, sufficient to form a majority with other conservative parties. If they scrap the coalition, Netanyahu would lose his post or find himself making deep concessions to moderate lawmakers.
As for the Palestinians, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the United Nations General Assembly that a Palestinian state is a must if there is to be peace in the region. His speech, delivered the day before Netanyahu spoke, was dominated by attacks on Israel, which he accused of “entrenching apartheid.”
Mahmoud al-Habash, supreme Sharia judge of the PA and an advisor to Abbas for religious affairs and Islamic relations, told a Times of Israel reporter, “Whoever thinks that peace can be achieved in the Middle East without the Palestinian people obtaining their legitimate national rights…is delusional.”
Against these diverse and mostly conflicting attitudes, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman sums up what President Biden must have told Netanyahu in private: “And now you’re going to have to do something hard, too.
“You’re going to have to agree to terms for normalization with Saudi Arabia that will require you to verifiably curb Jewish settlements in the West Bank, improve living and travel conditions for Palestinians there, advance Palestinian administration over more of their populated areas in accordance with Oslo and generally agree to steps that preserve the option of a two-state solution, even though your coalition agreement advocates annexation.”
I can spot a very narrow compromise in this muddle, namely preserving the option of a two-state solution. I doubt if they will get that far. Even if they manage to compromise, how long can that last?
Preserving the “option” for a two-state solution can only be temporary. For Israelis like Ben Gvir and Smotrich, preserving the “option” would preclude annexation and perhaps even block settlement expansion. For Abbas and al-Habash, they will become more and more impatient so long as it does not open the way to the actual creation of a Palestinian state.
A Palestinian state would be fine if it works. However, I do not believe for an instant that it will come close to resolving the conflict. I hope I am wrong, but what is more important is that the powers that be think an independent state is the answer (I think better answers exist).
I fully expect the Palestinian leadership to shatter the process by rejecting an independent state for the same reason that Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat, turned it down in July 2000 at Camp David. They want it all.
Which means that all this haggling and debate will be a waste of time.