Thursday, 23 May 2013

Two States: Israel’s Official Position Or Not?

If anyone out there was still clinging to the notion that the Israeli government officially supports a two-state peace with the Palestinians, Barak Ravid’s account of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee discussion on Tuesday should be enough to shatter that illusion.

The discussion saw government coalition members vociferously challenging Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s assertion that Israel’s policy is one of “negotiations based on two national states which will bring an end to the conflict."

MK Orit Strock from Habayit Hayehudi cut Livni off. "Two states for two peoples is not the government's official position," she said. "It is not part of the government's guiding principles, and for good reason. This is perhaps Netanyahu's position and your position, but it has not been accepted as the government's position."

[…] "The government has not even decided that it supports two nations for two peoples," [Habayit Hayehudi MK Yoni] Chetboun told Livni.

MK Moti Yogev (Habayit Hayehudi) continued the thought, saying, "Two nations for two peoples is disconnected from reality."

What’s disturbing about this is that these Knesset members are actually right: official commitment to the two-state solution isn’t in the coalition agreement, nor is it spelled out in the government’s ruling party’s platform (Likud-Beytenu didn’t bother to create one this past election cycle). And this isn’t the first time that omission has lent strength to Israeli politicians who oppose two states—not just in far-right, pro-annexationist Habayit Hayehudi, but in the Likud itself. Back in January, Likud MKs stated that their party does not support a two-state solution, Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar Ilan speech notwithstanding. As the Times of Israel reported:
Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who is No. 3 on the Likud-Beytenu joint list, said “two states for two peoples was never part of [Likud's] election platform.” MK Tzipi Hotovely, No. 15 on the list, said the Bar-Ilan speech was a tactical maneuver by Netanyahu only meant to placate the world.

Netanyahu’s failure to officially, formally, explicitly commit his own ruling party—never mind the Israeli government writ large—to the two-state solution, in writing, is almost as problematic as his failure to reprimand the MKs who reject it out of hand. It seems reasonable to assume that, if the prime minister were truly committed to a given solution, he would have reprimanded the Likud MKs who spoke out against it last January, and probably would’ve had a few choice words for the Habayit Hayehudi MKs who spoke out Tuesday as well.

Building on this assumption, J Street today launched an online petition (my word, not theirs) to get Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren to clarify whether or not the Israeli government supports the two-state solution. “For there to be any hope of progress, the Israeli government must state unequivocally that support for a two-state solution is a core principle of its foreign policy,” J Street explained. That’s certainly true, although personally I am less convinced by the follow-up assertion that “a simple declarative statement by Prime Minister Netanyahu or Ambassador Michael Oren would dispel these doubts immediately.” The petition is a clever move because it will pressure Oren to speak directly to this question, and I actually think there’s a good chance it will succeed in accomplishing that goal. But I’d hazard a guess that, if Oren does address the question, he’ll simply say exactly what he’s said before.

Oren will focus on the prime minister, arguing that he supports two states, even if others within the coalition do not (which is natural, after all, and even desirable—it’s a sign of Israel’s vibrant democracy!). He'll quote Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid quoting Netanyahu saying that the government supports two states. He’ll tout Netanyahu’s decision to appoint Livni lead peace negotiator—although she’s “leading” in nothing but name. He’ll pay lip service to the peace process, just like he did at the AIPAC conference in March, when he stated that “Netanyahu has taken consistent risks for peace. In 2009, when he got up at Bar Ilan University and made the two-state solution the official position of the Likud party, that was a risk.” What he won’t mention is that these kinds of oral commitments are only as good as the paper they’re written on—as the various Habayit Hayehudi and Likud MKs have made painfully clear.

Ultimately, what the Israeli government needs to do is enshrine its commitment to two states in writing—coalition agreements, party platforms—so that it’s crystal clear that this is official government policy. And then it needs to take the next step, moving from words to deeds, starting with confidence-building measures like a Livni-backed partial settlement freeze. Until it does this, there is simply no good reason for either U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry or the Palestinians to have, well, confidence in it.
MK Ronen Hoffman of Yesh Atid put the problem best in Tuesday’s discussion. He asked Habayit Hayehudi: "How is it possible to expect the Palestinians to enter negotiations when part of our government opposes a Palestinian state?" He’s right—such a situation expects a lot, it expects too much—and that’s just what Habayit Hayehudi is counting on.

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