Netanyahu centres reelection bid on burying two-state solution

As his popularity plummets, Netanyahu wants to portray himself as the only figure who can fend off growing US pressure to return to peace track.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands at an overview of the Israeli settlement of Har Homa (background) on February 20, 2020.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands at an overview of the Israeli settlement of Har Homa (background) on February 20, 2020.

Netanyahu centres reelection bid on burying two-state solution

Describing the two-state solution as “dead” has become common and widely accepted.

The idea that a Palestinian and an Israeli state can coexist side by side, as well as the mere possibility that a Palestinian state will be created in the future, have been discredited by years of status quo, despair and violence, not to mention the various actors actively working to bury what is still the most commonly accepted solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And this was even before the October 7 attacks by Hamas and the ensuing Israeli offensive in Gaza. But reading between the lines in Israel, one can sense that the long-dormant question of a two-state solution is resurfacing. Several actors are staking their positions on the two-state solution.

A “historic opportunity” for settlers

In the Occupied West Bank, Israeli settler violence against Palestinians is at unprecedented levels. The most radical wing of the Israeli settler movement clearly sees the aftermath of the 7 October attacks as a historic opportunity to apply pressure on Palestinians and make sure the two-state solution dies once and for all. To them, the two-state solution is not “dead enough”.

In an update in November, the UN indicated that settler attacks (from limited incidents to more serious attacks) had more than doubled from three incidents a day before 7 October to seven a day after. Since then, this spike has flattened but remains above prior averages.

This may only be the tip of the iceberg, as most attacks may go unrecorded. The majority of settler attacks aren’t as “violent” and high-profile as one may think. The main goal of Israeli settlers is not to kill but rather to intimidate and expel. They use violence in a less visible way to push smaller Palestinian communities out of key areas of the West Bank.

Chief among far-right figures championing settler expansion is Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister. Smotrich rose to power after last year’s election alongside his acolyte, the gun-waving Itamar Ben Gvir.


Read more: Ben-Gvir and Smotrich: The extremist duo who rose to power in Israel

While Ben Gvir’s vitriolic rhetoric turned him into an easy front-page man, Smotrich is the thinking head. As part of coalition talks with Netanyahu, Smotrich negotiated the “gerrymandering” of Israel’s government functions.

While he is known to be the finance minister, he has also been given de facto responsibility for Israel’s “civilian activities” in the West Bank. One of his key proposals has been to push for the legalisation of dozens of “outposts” — namely smaller settlements that are deemed illegal even according to Israeli law.

The real killer

This is no coincidence; as Smotrich knows, these outposts are the real two-state-solution killer.

The settlements in the West Bank and the settler “movement” are often viewed as a monolith, but they aren’t. Looking at the demography and geography of the settlements, they can be broadly divided into two: Big settlement blocs and more distant settlements generally situated closer to major Palestinian cities.

Smotrich knows that Israeli outposts are the real two-state solution killer.  He sees the 7 October attacks as a historic opportunity to make sure the two-state solution dies once and for all.

This geographic division is often an ideological one, too. Israelis living in big settlement blocs, like Gush Etzion, or "suburbs" of Jerusalem (Pisgat Ze'ev or Ma'ale Adumim) tend to be less ideological.

In crossing the green line, they are more interested in lower prices than in the religious ideology that portends what most outside observers see as the "settler movement". They live close to the Green Line, often working in major Israeli cities, including Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. 

Importantly, while the Israeli settler population has grown significantly over the past decades, the majority of Israelis living in the West Bank are still living in very close proximity to the Green Line. An estimated 80% of Israelis living in the West Bank live in settlements close to the border.

This is important because prior peace plans have discussed possible land swaps: The close proximity of most of those settlements to the border means Israel and a future Palestinian state can agree to swap land along the Green Line, with some Israeli land being exchanged for lands currently located inside the West Bank.

By swapping less than 5% of the West Bank and having it transferred to Israel in exchange for a similar amount of land inhabited by Israeli-Arabs along the Green Line, Israel and a future Palestine state can resolve one of the key obstacles to peace.

Enter the more ideological segment of the settler movement, represented by Smotrich and Ben Gvir.

They understand the two-state solution is not "dead enough". They understand that the real "Palestinian-state killer" is not settlement blocs but settlements situated deeper inside the West Bank, close to major Palestinian cities.

The more those grow, the more difficult it will be for any future Israeli state to agree to dismantle them. An estimated 100,000 settlers live in settlements deep inside the West Bank, in around 100 to 150 outposts deemed illegal, even according to Israeli law. Smotrich has repeatedly pushed plans to legalise those settlements, which would allow them to expand even further. 

This aerial view taken on April 23, 2023 shows the Givat Hadagan area of the Efrat Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, built in the Palestinian al-Khader village.

To give a point of comparison, 8,000 Israelis used to live in settlements inside Gaza in 2005-6 at the time of the "disengagement" when Ariel Sharon decided to pull them out of Gaza.

This disengagement deeply divided Israeli society between those in favour of pulling out of Gaza wearing blue colours and those against it wearing orange.

A withdrawal of the roughly 100,000 settlers, which would be needed for a land-swap settlement to work, would be even more divisive. Every time settlements deep in the West Bank are expanded, the chances of a pullout become smaller.

This is not to mention that for many Israelis, the "experience" in Gaza, which led to the Hamas take-over and eventually to the 7 October attacks, is a sign that Palestinians cannot be left to their own devices and cannot have a state.

The 7 October attacks have reinforced the perception, among at least part of the Israeli population, that creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank will lead to the exact same outcome — except this time, rockets won't fall on southern Israel, but in the heart of the country.

The geographic reality often escapes those who only know the conflict by reading books and articles. For instance, 14 kilometres separate the major Palestinian city of Tulkarm from the coastal Israeli city of Netanya.

In 2002, one of the worst suicide bombings in Israel, which targeted a hotel in the coastal city of Netanya, was carried out by a militant who walked to the city from the West Bank.

Most short-range rockets Hamas uses have a 10-20 km range.  On 7 October, Hamas militants penetrated as deep as 20km inside Israel when they reached the city of Ofakim.

Smotrich and Ben Gvir understand the two-state solution is not "dead enough". They view the real "Palestinian-state killer" as not settlement blocs but settlements situated deeper inside the West Bank.

This is the image some Israelis now have in mind when they think about a Palestinian state, and it explains why Israel has insisted on security guarantees. One could easily argue, from afar, that the best security comes from peace— a valid argument, but one that fails to grasp why most Israelis, beyond fringe extremists, disagree.

It is also true that a lack of engagement with the Palestinian Authority and an effort to marginalise it (pursued by Sharon and later by Netanyahu) also partly explain why the disengagement from Gaza not only did not bring peace but, in fact, led to Hamas's rise in power.

An election issue

The two-state solution will re-emerge as a key issue in the next Israeli elections

Before the war, multiple polls showed that the idea of a two-state solution had lost momentum. In Israel's many recent elections, the two-state solution was never really a campaign issue— it was mostly ignored.

But in the upcoming election, this issue will most certainly be front and centre, with most Israelis objecting to it.

Notably, after spending years pretending to be in favour of the two-state solution, Benjamin Netanyahu has come out of the woods (to no one's surprise) as a fervent opponent of the "Oslo mistake".

He is seeking to rally the many Israelis who have grown even more sceptical of the idea that Israel can live side by side with a Palestinian state at a time when several of Israel's allies — chief among them the US — are pressing it to help rejuvenate the Palestinian Authority and revive the moribund peace talks.

Netanyahu's positioning isn't exactly new, but it says much about his strategy for political survival. As his popularity plummets, he hopes to be able to bounce back by portraying himself as the only figure who can fend off the growing US pressure to return to the peace track.

To be clear, he won't be the only leader in Israel to express doubts or outright opposition to a Palestinian state — which also makes Yair Lapid's statement in his interview with Al Majalla even more notable.  But Netanyahu will present himself as a tough leader who won't cave to American pressure.

This partly explains the game he is already playing by saying one thing to Biden in private and later saying the exact opposite in public.

He is also sure to publicise and try to benefit from the latent tensions between Israel and the US, as his ministers continue to present unrealistic plans for the day after in Gaza, including a plan to resettle part of the Gaza population on an artificial island or outright displace them.

As his popularity plummets, Netanyahu hopes to be able to bounce back by portraying himself as the only figure who can fend off the growing US pressure to return to the peace track.

Defying allies

Does Bibi truly believe this can or should be done?

It doesn't matter. The goal is not to convince the Americans and Europeans that Israel has a viable alternative or to be serious in trying to envision what the "day after" in Gaza will look like. The goal is to make sure the Israeli public knows this government is not giving an inch and not succumbing to American pressure.

Of course, one can wonder how wise it is for Israel to pick a fight with its closest ally. 

Biden has shown his deep commitment to Israel's security and has even been willing to take domestic risks to do so, as Biden's popularity has been undermined by his handling of the Gaza crisis.

The answer is simple: Bibi's interests are not Israel's, and they haven't been for a while.

What matters to Bibi is to show himself the staunchest adversary of the two-state solution, to make sure the most widely accepted resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stays, very much, dead.

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