Israelis Wonder How Long Netanyahu Can Back Settlements and Two-State Solution
Over the weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sharply criticized President Obama’s administration, after the United Nations Security Council voted to adopt a resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlements on Friday, which the United States did not veto.
By REUTERS and THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. Photo by Pool photo by Dan Balilty. Watch in Times Video »
JERUSALEM — For years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, a conservative, has played a double act, competing domestically with his right-wing rivals in backing the settlement project all over the occupied West Bank while professing support for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Now, with the stinging United Nations Security Council resolution on Friday condemning Israeli settlement construction, Israeli politicians and analysts on the right, the left and in the political center say Mr. Netanyahu’s game may soon be up.
The Israeli right, feeling empowered by the advent of the Trump administration, which is expected to be more sympathetic to Israeli’s current policies, is pushing Mr. Netanyahu to abandon the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, long considered the only viable solution to the conflict.
Naftali Bennett, the leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party in Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition, with whom Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud Party compete for votes, is goading him to take on more extreme positions like annexing parts of the West Bank, adding to a sense in Israel that the real Mr. Netanyahu may have to stand up and decide which side he is on.
“He has to choose between the international community and Bennett,” said Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “It is not an easy choice, but he has to make a choice,” Professor Avineri said, adding, “Is Israel going to alienate itself from the whole world for the sake of settlement activity? And it is the whole world. Is this what Zionism is about?”
For a second consecutive day on Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu lambasted the departing Obama administration, publicly accusing it of having orchestrated Friday’s Security Council resolution, despite denials from Washington. The United States refrained from using its veto power, as it had done many times before to shield Israel, and abstained in the 14-to-0 vote.
“From the information that we have, we have no doubt that the Obama administration initiated it, stood behind it, coordinated on the wording and demanded that it be passed,” Mr. Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.
Referring to the American secretary of state, Mr. Netanyahu added, “As I told John Kerry on Thursday, friends don’t take friends to the Security Council,” and he said he was looking forward to working with President-elect Donald J. Trump’s administration when it takes office next month.
The Foreign Ministry summoned ambassadors of countries that had voted in favor of the resolution for personal meetings with ministry officials in Jerusalem, despite the Christmas holiday, which some of those countries celebrate.
In a highly unusual move, Mr. Netanyahu, who is also the foreign minister, summoned the American ambassador to Israel, Daniel B. Shapiro, for a meeting, though it was not immediately clear when that would take place.
Mr. Netanyahu also instructed his ministers to suspend their diplomatic activities and contacts with counterparts from the countries that had voted for the resolution for the next three weeks, until the American administration changes, and to suspend travel to those countries, according to Israeli news reports.
Israeli news reports also said the defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, had instructed Israel’s agencies to sever contacts with Palestinian Authority representatives on civil, not security matters. The ministry did not immediately confirm the reports.
Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official and the Palestinians’ veteran negotiator, called on Israel “to seize the opportunity, to wake up, to stop the violence, to stop settlements, and to resume negotiations.” Mr. Netanyahu says he is ready for negotiations anytime, but with no preconditions.
The Security Council vote seemed to have caught Israel off-guard.
“I hope for Netanyahu’s sake (and also for ours) that he knows the truth at least deep in his heart — it was the chronicle of a failure foretold,” Ben Caspit, a political commentator, wrote in the Maariv newspaper on Sunday.
Many commentators said the Security Council vote partly reflected a history of conflict between Mr. Netanyahu and President Obama over the settlements and Mr. Netanyahu’s anger over the Iranian nuclear deal. They also pointed to Mr. Netanyahu’s increasingly vocal backing for the settler cause. That includes his advancement of highly contentious legislation, known as the Regulation Bill, that would retroactively legalize settler outposts and homes built on privately owned Palestinian land and force the owners to accept compensation.
Mr. Netanyahu and his attorney general had previously warned that the bill, which recently passed a first reading in Parliament, contravenes international law and could land Israeli officials in the defendant dock of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
“After he said it, he rushed to vote in favor of the bill. Why?” Mr. Caspit wrote in Maariv. “Because of Bennett. The fear of the possibility that he would not be able to siphon seats from Bennett next time on Election Day caused him to act like a small-time grocery owner, instead of a national leader.”
Tzipi Livni, a former Israeli foreign minister and a leader of the center-left Zionist Union, wrote on Facebook after the Security Council vote, “The Security Council decision is bad for Israel and it is the result of Netanyahu’s surrender to the extreme right.”
Even Haggai Segal, a prominent settler and editor in chief of a right-wing newspaper, Makor Rishon, has written in recent months that the Regulation Bill had “no chance” because it would be invalidated by Israel’s Supreme Court and would be used by the International Criminal Court “to incriminate Israel for war crimes.”
Mr. Segal, who served jail time as a member of the Jewish Underground that maimed and killed Palestinians in the 1980s, wrote this summer, “The wise thing now is to make do with what it is possible to do, and not lose it all by insisting on impossible goals.”
Mr. Bennett did not seem deterred. In a statement to reporters on Sunday at the Western Wall in the Old City in East Jerusalem, Mr. Bennett said, “It’s time to decide between two alternatives: surrendering our land or sovereignty,” adding that steps would be taken in the near future to try to apply Israeli law in Judea and Samaria, the biblical terms for the West Bank.
But some Israelis were skeptical that Mr. Netanyahu, in his third consecutive term in office, and fourth over all, would choose one side over the other.
“Bennett knows that Netanyahu is not going to make a decision,” said Shmuel Sandler, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv. “He may say he will go with both. So far, it worked. It is easier for Bennett because he is not the prime minister. Netanyahu wants to enjoy both of the worlds.”