Benjamin Netanyahu’s Departure Would Not Usher in Middle East Peace

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Departure Would Not Usher in Middle East Peace

If it wants to bring the Israeli public on board its diplomatic initiatives, the Biden administration needs to reduce its diplomatic ambitions and focus its efforts on reaching a deal to end the Gaza War rather than a two-state solution.

There is a long list of reasons why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should resign from office and retire from political life, starting with his 2019 indictment on charges of breach of trust, bribery, and fraud.

The longest-serving Israeli leader, the seventy-four-year-old Netanyahu first became prime minister in 1996 and has been pushing the country further right ever since, replacing a Thatcherite pro-free market agenda with a populist campaign, stirring the nation’s “Mizrahim” (Israelis with Middle Eastern roots) and anti-socialist Russian immigrants against the educated Ashkenazi “elites.”

His earlier attempt to dismantle the country’s judiciary had sparked the largest protest movement in Israel’s history, as hundreds of thousands took to the streets in an attempt to stave off a constitutional revolution that would have made it almost impossible for the political right to lose power.

The Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 last year, which took the country off guard, shattered Netanyahu’s image as “Mr. Security.” Failing to make Israel safe, the majority of the public blames him and his government for “Black Shabbat.”

The public anger towards him is indeed immense, with recent surveys indicating that more than 70 percent of Israelis believe that he needs to resign either at the end of the war or immediately.

Recent polls suggest that the current government, which together won sixty-four seats in November 2022, would crash to around forty out of 120 if elections were to be held today. Benny Gantz’s National Unity party would secure 43 seats compared to the 12 it currently holds, while Netanyahu’s Likud party would win just 18 seats compared to the 32 it won in November 2022.

To propose that Netanyahu is at a political dead-end is stating a fact. But while his leadership may have been utterly discredited, he continues to control a government that is backed by 64 members of Knesset (parliament), including two ultra-nationalist parties that support annexing the occupied Arab territories to Israel.

From that perspective, Netanyahu is seen by some in Israel and by many in Washington as the main obstacle to a diplomatic resolution of the war in Gaza, which, according to President Joe Biden and his aides, should be based on the so-called “two-state solution” and include the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Indeed, recent reports suggest that the Biden administration is working together with Saudi Arabia and other pro-American Arab states to fashion a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas. This would create the conditions for a historic diplomatic initiative under which the Saudis and other members of the Arab League would normalize relations with Israel in exchange for an agreement by Jerusalem to turn an economically reconstructed Gaza Strip, led by a reconstituted Palestinian Authority (PA), into an independent Palestinian state.

Netanyahu suggested in the past that he would be willing to accept the Palestinian state that he described in a 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, under conditions that no Palestinian leader could ever accept: not just de-militarization and Israeli security control over airspace but also an Israeli capital in an undivided Jerusalem. The speech was seen as aiming to keep the illusion of a peace process alive while further cementing the occupation, and Netanyahu’s core belief was and is that the occupation could remain in perpetuity.

American lawmakers and pundits in Washington insist that Netanyahu’s rejection of the two-state solution is the main impediment to the creation of an independent Palestinian state and, therefore, to the revival of the peace process and the adoption of a grand bargain that would allow Israel to finally be integrated into the Middle East.

That, indeed, is the thesis of The New York Times’ influential columnist Thomas Friedman, who, in a series of articles, has stressed his “very dark view of Netanyahu’s intentions when it comes to the two states [solution]” and suggested that only Biden and Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) can take the steps needed to change the Middle Eastern political map and supposedly force Netanyahu out of power.

Press reports from Washington have indicated that Biden’s frustration with Netanyahu, whom he has known for forty years, has mounted. His criticism of Netanyahu has not only been directed at the way the Israeli PM has handled the military operation in Gaza. He apparently sees him as obstructing long-term American strategy in the Middle East.

“White House officials have increasingly concluded that Netanyahu is focused on his own political survival to the exclusion of any other goal and is eager to position himself as standing up to Biden’s push for a two-state solution,” according to The Washington Post.

Hence, during a press conference last month, Netanyahu publicly rebuked Biden over his support for a Palestinian state, saying that an Israeli prime minister needs to be “capable of saying no to our friends.”

Blaming Netanyahu for perpetuating the status quo in Israel-Palestine and for operating under the illusion that the Palestinians and their political goals for freedom could be ignored through a combination of technology and firepower makes a lot of sense.

In a way, Netanyahu’s strategy, based on the notion that the world and especially the Sunni Arab states had grown tired of the Palestinian issue, was shattered on October 7, as was his belief that the Hamas leadership in Gaza could be bought off through channeling financial aid from Qatar and that the organization would serve as a counterbalance to the PA in the West Bank.

But there are no indications that the trauma of October 7 has shifted Israeli public attitudes toward accepting the idea of an independent Palestinian state. If anything, as one prominent Israeli pollster has suggested, the Hamas attack has shifted Israeli public attitudes to the right that most Israelis are very much with Netanyahu when it comes to continuing Israeli military control of Gaza and the rest of the occupied Arab territories.

Only around 25 percent of the Israelis would now support the establishment of a Palestinian state and agree to that only under certain conditions that most Palestinians would not accept. From that perspective, most Israelis, with the exception of right-wing extremists and left-leaning peaceniks, would probably agree today with the arguments made by Netanyahu in his Bar-Ilan speech.

Moreover, that is very much the position of Gantz, who is seen as the leading successor to Netanyahu. While he remains opposed to annexing the West Bank and Gaza, he would also be opposed to any solution under which a Palestinian entity is not fully demilitarized and a united Jerusalem remains the capital of Israel.

According to The Times of Israel, Gantz as well President Isaac Herzog, and even opposition chairman Yair Lapid have “conveyed their discomfort with the Biden administration’s revived rhetoric regarding the need for a two-state solution since the war’s outbreak” and have privately urged “the Biden administration to refrain from publicly talking about the two-state solution in the fallout of Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught.”

“What I want to urge is against just saying ‘two-state solution.’ Why? Because there is an emotional chapter here that must be dealt with. My nation is bereaving. My nation is in trauma,” Herzog said in an interview with The Associated Press.

If anything, the Biden administration’s insistence on promoting the two-state solution could be playing into the hands of Netanyahu, who has already accused Gantz of supporting American calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Those who point to the U.S. push for Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreements in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom-Kippur War as a possible model for pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian deal today should recall that getting Israel to make the necessary concessions at that time was possible because Israel had actually achieved a military victory in that war.

Moreover, Washington wasn’t pushing in 1973 for a grand bargain between Israel and Egypt. The Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement was signed six years later.

If it wants to bring the Israeli public on board its diplomatic initiatives and ensure that Netanyahu leaves office sooner rather than later, the Biden administration needs to reduce its diplomatic ambitions and focus its efforts on reaching a deal to end the Gaza War, which in itself could prove difficult. Israeli-Palestinian peace would not arrive even if Bibi leaves office tomorrow. 

Dr. Leon Hadar is a contributing editor with The National Interest, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, and a former research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. He has taught at American University in Washington, DC, and the University of Maryland, College Park. A columnist and blogger with Haaretz (Israel) and Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore, he is a former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post.