Deceit and conceit were on full display at the Chatham House earlier this month, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dropped in for a chat. He was visiting London to celebrate 100 years of the Balfour Declaration, in which colonial Britain promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine at a time when Jews made up less than 10 percent of its inhabitants.
Before bombarding his audience with a barrage of the usual political spin and tired cliches about peace and security, Netanyahu’s British host readily provided the launching pad: Israel exists in a “very dangerous” region, a “conflict-prone” region of the world.
I listened carefully for any hint of irony as a Brit and an Israeli complained about the Middle East mess, but could only see a childish grin of satisfaction on Binji’s face. It’s as if, from Balfour to Blair and from Ben Gurion to Barak, countless British and Israeli leaders have tried in earnest to help these ungrateful Arabs, but to no avail.
And so today, despite the sincerity of their colonial efforts to bring reason and stability to these troubled lands, the poor Israeli and Chatham House lads are lamenting the mess. Preoccupied with so many conflicts in the Middle East, there’s no time for anything else to do or discuss.
Especially not when it comes to peace.
Netanyahu’s theatrics vary depending on the audience. These days, his roles include strategic analyst, marketing executive, chief moralist, Sunni leader and modern Israelite prophet. He’s anything but a peace-seeker, let alone peacemaker.
So, Netanyahu, the strategist, warns of Tehran’s non-existing nuclear weapons programme and rails against the Iran nuclear deal using charts and maps, but says nothing of Israel’s own decades-old nuclear arsenal and its contribution to nuclear proliferation.
Perhaps that’s because he wasn’t asked. Ever?
Before the Arab spring, Netanyahu argued that democracy was indispensable for peace since dictators couldn’t be trusted to maintain it. He preached democracy, when democracy was a useful pretext to justify the invasion of Iraq. But today, Netanyahu, the marketing executive, is re-branding democracy as a dangerous gamble.
Back when Natan Sharansky’s The Case for Democracy was in fashion, Netanyahu stressed that the more democratic Arab states became, the less dangerous they would be for Israel. But I could only shake my head listening to Netanyahu at Chatham House cite Israeli-American sociologist Amitai Etzioni’s book, Security First, to show why democracy is bad for stability and peace. What a farce!
So today, Chief Moralist Netanyahu looks at dictators and he sees “moderate Sunni” leaders. With a nudge from his pal, US President Donald Trump, he volunteers to champion the Saudi “Sunnicrescent” against Iran’s “Shia Crescent” in return for the Sunni world looking the other way as Israel devours Palestine.
All in all, Netanyahu is optimistic. The Middle East has turned against itself, and its leaders are slowly but surely turning to Israel unconditionally, despite their self-interested coyness on the matter. And the world, especially the United States, has never been as receptive to Israeli demands.
But what about peace with the Palestinians? Well, Israel, is in no hurry.
The idea that a fully secure Israel would be conciliatory and “generous” with the Palestinians, which guided the peace process from the start, has proven false once again, but Arabs and others continue to make gestures towards Israel in the hope of a compromise.
Half a state on half of the West Bank
After Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, a TIME cover story explained that, “Israel doesn’t care about peace” because “Israelis feel prosperous, secure and disengaged from the peace process with the Palestinians.”
The same goes for their leaders. The ruling coalition is actually opposed to the “peace process” and is sure to implode at the mere consideration of a withdrawal from any part of the occupied West Bank, let alone from Jerusalem. So would the Likud Party. Netanyahu has no interest whatsoever in changing the status quo.
He rather insists on Israel’s historical right to a fully-fledged, sovereign and secure “Jewish state”, rooted in both biblical mythology and modern realpolitik. This means, among other things, extending Israel’s authority to all of Palestine.
But when it comes to the Palestinians, Netanyahu, the spinner, questions their demand for sovereignty, security and statehood, and suggests that peacemakers must think out of the box.
In other words, if they must stay, the Palestinians will have to do so as guests in the Jewish homeland or in “Greater Israel”. And if they behave, they may get half a state.
While peacemakers ponder possibilities outside Netanyahu’s box, his government continues to box in the Palestinians.
It expands illegal settlements in occupied Palestine, tightens its security grip on the West Bank, and issues new humiliating preconditions for any progress in the peace process: Palestinian recognition of Israel’s historical right to exist as a “Jewish state” and abandonment of the “right of return”.
All of this diminishes the once-envisioned sovereign, independent and contiguous Palestinian state into a fragile, half-state on parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, undercutting a fair resolution of the refugee question.
It clearly doesn’t matter to Israel that the Palestinian leaders have committed to a two-state solution or that more than two-thirds of the UN member states have recognised Palestinian independence. As long as Israel can help it, Palestine will remain a distant dream. As former Secretary of State John Kerry concluded after his exhaustive experience with the Netanyahu government, Israel doesn’t want peace with the Palestinians.
Then came President Trump promising to confront Iran and propose an “ultimate deal” to resolve the conflict once and for all.
When asked about the substance of his proposal, the US president was terribly blase and uncommitted: “I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like”. Trump left it to his religious Zionist son-in-law to articulate the “ultimate deal”, but he won’t propose anything serious before checking with Israel first.
Pressured to choose between a two-state solution and an emerging one-state reality, Netanyahu has come up with his own formula: a state and a half. And now he’s got the US to sponsor it and the Saudis to pay for it. No wonder he can’t stop smiling.
What the proposed deal may lack in fairness, the Saudis are expected to make up in funding. With Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s authority facing bankruptcy and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in shambles, the Palestinian leadership may bite – not because it wants to, but because the “ultimate deal” is, in fact, an ultimatum: get with the programme or get lost.
This may work for a short while, but it won’t bring peace or security in the long term. And it will undermine, perhaps for good, the idea of a two-state solution, while at the same time prevent a de facto one-state reality from emerging.
But regional and international support won’t change the stubborn fact; it will merely formalise apartheid, Israeli-style.
This is a deadlock. It’s injustice. And it will only fester, Netanyahu’s false prophecy notwithstanding.
The real solution lies not in the number of states required to resolve the conflict, but in the state of mind that maintains it.