Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likely Next Steps – NYTimes.com
What can Israelis, their Palestinian neighbors and the watching world expect next from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Jodi Rudoren, the Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times, answered readers’ questions about the peace process, U.S.-Israeli relations and other issues.
The Two-State Solution
Q. Mr. Netanyahu is the lightning rod for global criticism for his election pandering. But doesn’t his strategy reflect the Israeli electorate drifting to the right? So isn’t the lack of support to a two-state solution really bigger than Bibi? Isn’t it the majority of the Israeli electorate that is increasingly giving a thumbs down to the peace process that encompasses a two-state solution? — Mark FitzGerald; Reno, Nev.
A. The elections last week did not show a shift to the right, Mark. The right-wing bloc, or nationalist camp, won about the same number of seats it had in the last government; Mr. Netanyahu just consolidated many of their votes into seats for his Likud Party, which grew at the expense of parties further to the right. By some counts, the left picked up seats.
The latest polls I’ve seen still show that a majority of Israeli Jews support a two-state solution. But an even larger majority of them doubt it can happen, either because of the regional situation or because of the Palestinian leadership or some combination of these and other reasons.
In that way, yes, Mr. Netanyahu’s latest statement — that he believes in the concept of two states but thinks the current circumstances make it impossible — is reflective of a very broad view among Israel’s Jews.
Q. Jodi, given what appears to be the final demise of the two-state solution, can you address the question of what a one-state solution might look like? And how do people on the right versus the left draw it? Is there something in-between apartheid and a secular democratic state with an eventual Arab majority? — Alon Gratch; Larchmont, New York
A. I don’t think we’re quite at “final demise,” Alon, but pondering the alternatives is interesting. There were at least two books published about this topic last year: “One Land, Two States” is a collection of academic essays mulling various possibilities, and “The Israeli Solution” is a manifesto by Caroline Glick, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, tearing apart Washington’s two-state policy.
The Palestinians I know who back a one-state solution — including President Mahmoud Abbas’s own son — along with a handful of left-wing Israelis, envision a state where everyone who lives between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River has equal rights: one person, one vote. The demographics suggest that would pretty quickly become a Palestinian-majority state, because there are close to the same number of Jews and Arabs living in the territory now, and this new state would presumably welcome Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
One right-wing vision, as articulated by the Jewish Home party, is for Israel to annex the two-thirds of the West Bank where its settlers live, and offer the Palestinians living there Israeli citizenship. The major Palestinian cities like Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jenin would have autonomy without statehood; Israeli security forces would remain deployed around them.
There is some deeper thinking about how a binational state might actually function — or not. Some suggest a single government entity for foreign policy and defense, but parallel bureaucracies for schools, courts and other services for Israeli and Palestinian citizens, regardless of where they live. I’m not sure where trash pickup fits in this model.
One-staters have said to me: “Israel is amoral; apartheid fell. The Soviet Union fell. Ethnocracies do not have a place in the 21st century.” But Israel was created as a Jewish state. The vast majority of Israelis want to live in a Jewish state, however they define that. And I’m not sure the one-state vision really fulfills Palestinian national aspirations, either.
Q. No one has quite articulated what Mr. Netanyahu’s long-term vision is, and his public statements don’t provide one either. What is the long-term solution Mr. Netanyahu is hoping for? What is his long-term best-case scenario? — Ashish Goel; Stanford, Calif.
A. Ashish, I wish I could tell you the answer to this. It’s the question I’ve been asking since I arrived here almost three years ago: How long do you think the status quo is sustainable? I’ve never gotten a real response. Mr. Netanyahu is focused on the physical security threats to Israel, whether from Hamas or Iran or the Islamic State, but not on the looming threats of international isolation, or the demographic threat many see in what they often call the one-state reality.
I suppose Mr. Netanyahu would say, long term, he still supports the creation of a demilitarized Palestine that recognizes Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. But he thinks that is impossible right now. So, what about in the meantime Mr. Netanyahu in the past talked about economic peace — increased cooperation on tourism, development initiatives and other business — which the Palestinians generally rebuffed as off point. Some leaders among the Israeli settlers and the Jewish Home party talk about managing the conflict instead of solving it, and improving people’s lives across the West Bank by removing checkpoints and increasing work opportunities.
Since last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas, there has been some relaxation of restrictions on the Gaza Strip to allow a few more businesspeople to cross in and out, and some vegetable exports. Supposedly, in a few weeks or months we might see thousands of Gazans regain permits to work in Israel. But this is really on the margins.
Remember, too, Israel is still an adolescent nation. Sometimes I think about what it must have been like to cover America in the 1840s — how far out were our leaders back then planning?
Q. How worried is Mr. Netanyahu about losing a United States firewall in the Security Council? How far will he go to avert this? Will he, for example, release Palestinian Authority funds, freeze settlements beyond the blocs, replace Ron Dermer? — Scot B.; Boston
A. These are exactly the questions I’m asking, Scot, and would like to ask the prime minister if he’d agree to an interview (I’ve been asking daily). The firewall is not just important at the United Nations, but with Europe. If Europe got serious about sanctions, whether in terms of labeling or even banning products made in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank — or, say, requiring visas for Israelis to travel — I think it would change Israeli attitudes and put major pressure on Mr. Netanyahu.
My guess is that the prime minister will soon release the Palestinian tax money he has been withholding since January.
He is much less likely to recall Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, anytime soon. On Friday night, Mr. Netanyahu’s spokesman issued a statement reiterating how proud the prime minister is of Mr. Dermer.
I don’t think you’ll see a formal freeze of settlement construction, either, but I think the new government may slow down construction in the isolated settlements beyond the blocs Israelis expect to stay theirs, as the pro-settler Jewish Home party will have less influence than it did before the election.
On the eve of the recent Israeli election, the prime minister said that no Palestinian state would be created on his watch. Two days later, he began to backtrack.
Q. With the entire M.E. in a chaos which will probably outlast President Obama in office, is there even a slim chance for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement to survive? — Jon; New York
A. I really don’t know anyone who believes there will be a peace agreement any time soon. Secretary of State John Kerry was pretty much the only person you could find who said it was possible when the last round of negotiations started. And by the end, even he was not so sure.
Q. What do you think would be American Jews’ policies toward Mr. Netanyahu’s divisive politics following his decisive win against the Zionist Union party? Do you think his rhetoric of Israel’s existential threat still resonates among American Jews? — Aminur Rahim; Alice, South Africa
A. American Jews are not a monolith, of course, and I’m not there, so I’m not in the best position to know.
It was interesting to me that many American Jewish groups and leaders criticized Mr. Netanyahu’s speech in Congress, and even more harshly condemned his Election Day comments about Arabs voting in droves. It was even more interesting that some of these same groups rushed to praise the prime minister’s postelection interviews in which he said he had not abandoned his commitment to the two-state solution. I think they expected the White House to do the same. Not so much.
Now you have a situation where the majority of American Jews voted for President Obama, whose bitter, strained relationship with Mr. Netanyahu has just gone from worse to whatever is below that. American Jews, especially the younger generation, are less and less identified with Israel. Then there are J Street types who say loving Israel means criticizing it when you think it’s wrong; Peter Beinart wrote last week that whenever an Israeli minister speaks in the diaspora, he should find Jews outside protesting.
Mr. Netanyahu thinks of himself as the head of not only the government in Israel but the leader of the Jewish people. My colleague Laurie Goodstein found that his campaign rhetoric lost a lot of them.
The Iran Nuclear Negotiations
Q. Mr. Netanyahu is opposed to the emerging nuclear deal with Iran, but how else does he propose to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? — Brett Walter; Redwood City
A. He says what he wants is a better deal. It got a bit lost in all the hubbub over his backtrack on the Palestinian state question, but Mr. Netanyahu gave some specifics in his MSNBC interview last week: He said he would prefer zero centrifuges but that “a smaller number” than the 6,000 on the table “would be something that Israel and its Arab neighbors wouldn’t love but they could live with.” He and others in his circle have said their biggest concern is the idea of an automatic sunset after 10 years. So, there may be some wiggle room there.
The Israeli leader’s settlement policy resembles his predecessors’, but it is a march toward permanence at a time when prospects for peace are few.
A couple of years ago it really seemed like the prime minister wanted the United States to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, or at least support an Israeli attack on them. I think he realizes now the first is not going to happen, and many people think the second one is also unimaginable in the foreseeable future.
A lot of Israelis think the Iranians will ultimately reject the Western powers’ best offer.
Relations with Europe
Q. In light of recent anti-Semitic attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, does Bibi consider the implications his domestic and foreign policy decisions may have on world Jewry in their respective countries? — Ben Carroll; Glasgow, Scotland; @Carroll1Ben on Twitter
A. As I said before, the prime minister sees himself as the leader of the Jewish people and is intensely concerned about what he sees as a distinct rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. It seems he thinks the best course for world Jewry is a strong Israel. After the attacks, he called for mass Aliyah, or immigration to Israel. Leaders of those European Jewish communities did not like this at all, and many Israelis, including the president, publicly dissented.
Q. What does Netanyahu think he can and should do to mend relations with his country’s allies, and how important does he see that? — Timothy Platt; Brooklyn, N.Y.
A. Good to hear from Brooklyn, our home before landing in Jerusalem. Say hello to Dean Street for me, Timothy. Does it seem like I’m avoiding the question?
I think the prime minister’s trifecta of American broadcast interviews last Thursday walking back — he would say clarifying — his pre-election declaration opposing a Palestinian state was an effort to mend relations with allies. It does not seem to have worked. It may be impossible to do any mending while the Iran deal is still pending. I think you’ll see some gestures, starting with the release of tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority, but that will probably not be enough. A more substantive step could be to enshrine in the new government’s guidelines something about supporting a two-state solution under specific conditions, but that might be difficult to get by the Jewish Home.
Mr. Netanyahu is not naïve about the importance of Israel’s allies, especially the United States, though many people think he does not demonstrate that well. I was struck at the start of last summer’s war with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip by how much diplomatic work he did to make Israel’s case in hopes of preventing the kind of international condemnations for civilian casualties that there had been in previous conflicts. It worked, to some extent: World leaders generally coupled any criticism of Israeli attacks in the early days and weeks of the conflict with harsh words about Hamas’s rocket fire and militant activity from civilian neighborhoods.
Hamas and the Gaza Strip
Q. What has Mr. Netanyahu changed about his policy toward Gaza after Operation Protective Edge that is different from his policy toward Gaza after Operation Pillar of Defense? — Nathan Hersh; New Haven, Conn.; @nathanhersh on Twitter
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party achieved a surprisingly strong victory in Tuesday’s election. Now, he is likely to build a right-wing coalition of 67 of the 120 members of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament.
A. That’s a tough one. The cease-fire agreement approved last summer basically just reinstated the 2012 agreement that ended the previous round of fighting.
As I mentioned above, there has already been a slight relaxation of restrictions, including the first export of tomatoes, eggplants and other produce since Hamas took over Gaza, and import of construction materials to start rebuilding thousands of damaged and destroyed homes. If Israel really allows 5,000 Gaza residents to work in Israel, that would be a significant change, affecting both the Gaza economy and perhaps, more important, its psychology.
But the next step for Gaza may be largely in Palestinian hands. Israel, Washington, the United Nations and Egypt all want the Palestinian Authority to take over the crossings into Gaza, and to get a firmer grip on its governance. Officially, the Palestinian Authority is in charge, after a reconciliation pact Hamas signed with the Palestine Liberation Organization that led to a “government of national consensus.” When I was in Gaza last month, everybody wanted to know why President Abbas has not been there yet, why his government was not living up to its responsibility.
Q. What is Mr. Netanyahu’s strategy for dealing with Hamas? — Stephanie Baric; New York, N.Y.;@StephanieBaric on Twitter
A. Many people think he doesn’t have one. Last summer was the third war in Gaza in six years; many Israelis are already counting down to the next one. There are Israelis who thought that Mr. Netanyahu did not go far enough the last time, and that he should have basically sent the military to reoccupy Gaza and rout Hamas and its weapons. Some call the strategy of intermittent military action “mowing the grass” to keep the violence in check.
Israeli Domestic Politics
Q. It sounds like most people who voted for Mr. Netanyahu voted for security, but there also is a strong concern about Israel’s economy and cost of living. Has Mr. Netanyahu discussed his priorities with helping the cost of living? Is his party trusted on economic issues? — Darian Mason; @DGMason on Twitter
A. No, and no. Mr. Netanyahu belatedly started talking about Israel’s housing crisis in the campaign’s final days, but he didn’t say how he would address it. As for the Likud, Moshe Kahlon broke from the party to form his own, called Kulanu, precisely because he felt the economic issues were not getting enough attention. Now Mr. Netanyahu has promised to appoint Mr. Kahlon finance minister, and said they will solve the problems together. Stay tuned for how.
Q. Within the new coalition, Mr. Netanyahu must go with either Avigdor Lieberman or the religious parties, with significant policy implications either way. Which will it be and what will the choice tell us about his intentions? — David Guren; Seattle
A. Actually, David, both Mr. Lieberman of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism factions are expected to join the coalition. Both will have influence: Shas is expected to get the Interior Ministry, and Mr. Lieberman may remain as foreign minister.
But Mr. Lieberman’s role in the next government will likely be smaller than the last, as he has lost seats, given up his official partnership with Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud, and been unabashedly critical of the prime minister. The ultra-Orthodox factions will likely demand an unraveling of legislation passed by the last government to reduce the widespread draft exemptions for men who study the Torah full time and push for more subsidies for large, religious families. They won’t have as much to say about foreign policy.