Is this Netanyahu’s Palestinian State?

Prime Minister Netanyahu visits the scene of a shooting attack by Palestinian gunmen on Wednesday in Tel Aviv.
Prime Minister Netanyahu visits the scene of a shooting attack by Palestinian gunmen on Wednesday in Tel Aviv. AP

On June 14, 2009, at Bar-Ilan University, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke the unspeakable. The man, who in his book Place Under the Sun had written that a Palestinian state was a mortal danger to Israel, reluctantly accepted the notion of a two-state solution.

While firmly stating that the Land of Israel was the homeland of the Jewish people, the prime minister had to admit that “within this homeland lives a large Palestinian community. We do not want to rule over them, we do not want to govern their lives, we do not want to impose either our flag or our culture on them.”

The applause he won following his ground-breaking speech was short-lived, though, because, on the ground, things have moved in the other direction.

The Palestinians have their share of blame for the lack of progress in the peace process. They repeatedly rejected Netanyahu’s appeal to come to the negotiating table without any preconditions. Instead, they have tried to bypass Israel by snatching statehood from the United Nations or from European governments, an attempt which not only was doomed to fail, but which only increased the suspicion among Israelis that there was no credible Palestinian partner for peace.

However, blaming the Palestinians does not relieve Netanyahu from the responsibility that under his watch Israel is slowly but surely getting closer to becoming one bi-national state, where Arabs will comprise close to half of the population. In that case, Israel might either lose its Jewish character or its democracy.

How could Netanyahu remain calm in light of such an alarming forecast? Surely he knows that the constant increase of Israeli settlements in the West Bank will eventually make the viability of a Palestinian state there impossible.

Strangely enough, the prime minister doesn’t seem to be at all concerned by this. In a closed meeting of his Likud Party last October he was heard boasting that “[t]he left accuses us that from 280,000 [settlers in 2009] we’ve risen to 400,000, and that was during years when we were told that official U.S. policy was not even one house. Praise God, this isn’t far from the truth. It’s the biggest increase in our world.”

Assuming that Netanyahu realizes that in a kind of a zero-sum game, the increase in settlements means the doom of the Palestinian state, how does he reconcile it with his desire not to rule the Palestinians?

Since Netanyahu never gives the Israeli public a “State of the Nation” address, nobody really knows. Pundits are sure that he only cares about his own political survival. It may be true in his daily politicking, but he is a son of a historian and a man with a sense of history himself, and I doubt that he wishes to go down in history as the leader who brought Israel a calamity. So I suspect that under the surface of his current composure there is something else; but what?

Digging in the archives, I bumped into a press conference Netanyahu — then-deputy foreign minister — gave on December 10, 1991, in Washington. This was in the wake of the Madrid Conference, where Israel had been negotiating for the first time with a Palestinian-Jordanian delegation. Claiming that a Palestinian state will be a danger both to Israel and Jordan, he suddenly said: “No one will tell me that an Arab living in Nablus or an Arab living in Hebron  . . is of a different people than his brother or his cousin or his mother that is living 20 miles away in Amman or in Irbid.”

Bingo. The cycle has been squared. From 1991 through 2009 till today,Netanyahu has been consistent in his belief that since the Palestinians and the Jordanians are the same Arabs, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will eventually become “a border dispute” between Israel and Jordan. In his words, “[m]aybe some would like the border on the Jordan River as we do, maybe others would like to move it westward, but ultimately a stable Middle East . . . requires a solution between two entities and not the inclusion or the incorporation of a third, artificial Palestinian state.”

So was he lying in 2009 when he said he had agreed to a Palestinian state? Not according to what I have come to believe is his secret plan: The Palestinians will have their state all right, but within Jordan and the part of the West Bank negotiated in the border dispute between Israel and Jordan. In the meantime, building settlements will only enhance Israel’s position in the future negotiations over the border.

Most experts dismiss this “Jordanian Option”, and anyway, Israelis don’t have a better record than the Americans in their attempts to engineer the Middle East according to their wishful thinking (see the Lebanese fiasco in 1982-83, when Israel tried to make the Maronite Christians the masters of that predominantly Muslim country). A more realistic option is a confederation between Israel, Jordan and an independent Palestine.

Having said that, if I’m right about Netanyahu’s secret plan, then it’s good to know that after all, my prime minister is not only busy surviving politically, but has something of a longer range on his mind.