Netanyahu’s position is clear. First, there must be negotiations. If an understanding is reached with the Palestinians, Netanyahu will then conduct a democratic battle to get his coalition members and the Israeli public to support the two-state solution, which rightist ministers in Likud-Beytenu and Habayit Hayehudi currently oppose.
It is also convenient for Netanyahu to present his situation in this light, as otherwise he would have to tell the Americans, and later the Palestinians, that he lacks a mandate to make peace.
There are three lines of thought being espoused by coalition members who oppose the two-state solution. The least burdensome of these is the assessment that negotiations with the Palestinians won’t go anywhere in any case. In past talks with prime ministers more moderate than Netanyahu (namely, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert), Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas showed he was not seeking a peace agreement based on two states west of the Jordan River. Why would Abbas act any differently toward Netanyahu? This is the view expressed by representatives of the ministers and MKs who are part of the Knesset’s Land of Israel Lobby.
A more troublesome act is direct opposition to negotiations with the Palestinians. On Monday, it was Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett’s turn to denigrate peace talks. Rather than saying that talks with the Palestinians would not succeed (a view that Netanyahu might think was reasonable), Bennett expressed his hope that Netanyahu’s efforts would fail.
It is appropriate for an opposition MK to make such a statement, but it is unacceptable for a coalition member to do so. Such an act exposes the government’s internal divides to the Israeli public and the international community. Parties such as Yesh Atid and Hatnuah must respond as Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri did on Monday when he criticized Bennett. The party vs. party and minister vs. minister battles are already underway.
The world, long accustomed to puzzling behavior within Israeli democracy, will be able to move on from Bennett’s words. But statements like the one made by Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon — that the Israeli government and its leader do not actually want to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians — cause real damage. This either falsely attributes views to Netanyahu that he does not hold or it reveals a diplomatic secret that undermines Israel’s credibility and its maneuvering ability with the Americans, Europeans and Arab states. Netanyahu is already suspected of not being interested in two states for two peoples, and Danon’s words harmfully reinforced that view.