At least one good thing came out of the election in Israel on Tuesday, when voters appeared to return Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power. Going forward, there will be a lot fewer illusions about the hawkish prime minister, who once supported a two-state solution with the Palestinians but explicitly rejected it during the campaign. It turns out that what Netanyahu’s critics have been saying about him all along was true: He is not a peace-maker, he’s purposefully undermined the viability of a future Palestinian state, and he’s willing to inflame racism to get elected.
It was in the final days of the campaign, in a desperate appeal to right-wing voters, that Netanyahu dropped the mask, and he can’t very well put it back on now by reversing himself again. The Israeli prime minister disavowed what has been American policy for two decades: that the only long-term solution for the region is two states, one Arab and one Jewish, coexisting side by side. Netanyahu once claimed to support that outcome too, while he and his supporters attempted to blame the Palestinians for the lack of progress toward achieving it. Plenty of Palestinians did oppose peace, and still do. But there’s now no way to point the finger entirely at them.
Still, a two-state solution remains by far the best outcome, and Netanyahu’s about-face is no reason for President Obama to follow suit. Neither Netanyahu nor the Palestinians who are opposed to negotiations have outlined a credible alternative, which can only mean a continuation of the status quo. That would keep Palestinian Arab land under Israeli military occupation while continuing to deprive its residents of fundamental political rights. And it would keep both Israelis and Palestinians on a pathway to a dismal future: As the number of disenfranchised Palestinian Arabs living under military occupation grows, Israel’s democracy weakens step by step.
For the United States, Netanyahu’s flip-flop on the Palestinians forces it to recalibrate its diplomacy. For instance, in the past the United States has resisted efforts to address the conflict in the United Nations, calling instead for the two sides to reach a deal through direct negotiation. That was a credible argument, but only as long as the two sides actually shared the same goal. It’s no longer possible to believe that Netanyahu does. Many of the anti-Israel resolutions that go before the United Nations are ill-considered, and deserve the American veto, but the United States can no longer justify blanket opposition to international involvement by calling for a negotiated settlement instead.
Netanyahu’s opposition to a Palestinian state is premised on the belief that Israel can never be secure with a hostile country on its doorstep, able to lob rockets into Israeli cities. But the Palestinians have legitimate needs too, and keeping them in a state of semi-permanent military occupation has its own dangers. It contradicts the basic values that the United States champions elsewhere in the world, and also feeds anti-Western and anti-American sentiment. Netanyahu, it’s clear, disagrees. But the United States now has to find a way to work around him toward a peaceful two-state solution.
• George Mitchell series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
• Michael A. Cohen: US must reconsider relationship with Israel