The Israel- Palestine conflict will determine Bennet’s legacy and be the lens through which the world judges him. He would perhaps look to the policies of Israel’s two longest serving Prime Ministers – David Ben Gurion, its first and Benjamin Netanyahu, its last.
On June 13, 2021, the Israeli parliament, Knesset, voted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu out of office by a slim margin of 60 to 59 votes. After 12 years under Netanyahu’s rule, Israel will now be steered by a coalition government under the leadership of Naftali Bennet, a former commando and self-made tech billionaire. The government coalition represents parties from all ends of the political spectrum, including an Arab Islamist party called Ra’am.
Bennet has inherited a country that is very different from that known by his predecessors. But one thing remains the same. Around the world and in Israel, there is no topic more frequently discussed than that of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The conflict will determine Bennet’s legacy and be the lens through which the world judges him. He will therefore be well-acquainted with Jewish military history and would perhaps look to the policies of Israel’s two longest serving Prime Ministers – David Ben Gurion, its first and Benjamin Netanyahu, its last.
Bennet and the two-state solution
Bennet, while making a name for himself in politics, was a strong advocate for the Jewish historical and religious claims to the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. His seemingly hard-lined approach has evoked concern from Palestinian rights groups, but some experts like Martin Indyk argue, that in order to maintain his wide-ranging coalition, Bennet will have no choice but to employ a calculated and measured approach.
Indyk, a specialist in Middle Eastern policy and distinguished fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations, writes in his article titled, ‘The End of the Netanyahu Era,’ that Bennet will attempt to appease Arabs living in Israel as far as possible to pacify the Arab parties. However, Bennet’s potential ambivalence towards Palestinians could not include territorial concessions at risk of infuriating the right. As recently as February 2021, he claimed that “as long as I have power and control, I won’t hand over one centimetre of land of Israel.”
What he wants, who he allies with and how he manages coalition politics will soon give us a better insight into Bennet’s policies. However, despite being more lip service than policy, the two-state solution continues to be presented as a viable alternative.
A report from the Brookings Institute portrays a grim diagnosis of the state of relations between Israelis and Palestinians. It claims the two-state solution proposed by Yasir Arafat during the Oslo Accords is all but dead-in-the-water three decades later given recent developments including the collapse of moderate Palestinian leadership and the establishment of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. The two-state solution, essentially a negotiated territorial compromise, has long been considered the ‘only’ solution to the conflict. However, while two Israeli Prime Ministers, namely Ehud Barak (1999-2001) and Ehud Olmert (2006-2009) embarked on concrete discussions surrounding a two-state solution, most Israeli leaders have traversed a path of ‘survival of the fittest.’
Prominent figures like the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart and the late acacademic Edward Said have argued that the two-state solution was never a viable option, and there can only be one state that is either ruled by an utterly dominant or utterly magnanimous majority. Looking at the successes and failures of Netanyahu and Ben Gurion, one could find potential merit in that assessment.
Ben Gurion and Netanyahu
While neither settled on utterly dominant or utterly magnanimous, both veered far closer to the former. Ben Gurion and Netanyahu entered politics at starkly different points of Israel’s history. The latter took office at a time when Israel was a prominent world power, the former, before it had even been established as a country. However, both were brought up in circumstances greatly influenced by the Israel Palestine conflict. Ben Gurion as a youth was expelled from Palestine, which was under Ottoman rule at the time. He then observed the atrocities of the Holocaust and was pivotal in the formation of the state of Israel, becoming its first Prime Minister in the process. Netanyahu, for his part, fought in the Yom Kippur War, in which Egypt attacked Israel and later lost his brother Yonatan Netanyahu, a member of the Israel Defence Forces, in Operation Entebbe in Uganda. Both witnessed attacks on Israeli statehood in the form of conflicts with Arab nations, and both subsequently adopted a political agenda that prioritised security over everything else.
As Prime Minister, Ben Gurion led Israel through the first Arab Israeli war, not only defending the national borders established by the 1947 UN partition plan but also capturing almost 60% of the land designated for the Palestinians. In contrast, during Netanyahu’s time, Israel’s threats came from within its boundaries rather than from any external powers. One favoured emancipation outside its borders and the other, subjugation within. Subsequently, while both men were fervent defenders of an Israeli homeland for the Jews, their approaches to Palestinian statehood varied considerably.
In his book, ‘The Iron Wall,’ Oxford historian, Avi Shlaim claims that Ben Gurion was “committed to the full realisation of Zionism regardless of the scale and depth of Arab opposition.” Thus, the pragmatic Ben Gurion, saw peace with the Arabs not as a long-lasting solution but as a means to an end. Shlaim also speculates that Ben Gurion accepted that the Israelis were the aggressors and therefore understood why the Palestinians would see them that way. In 1944 Ben Gurion said, “there is no example in history of a people saying we agree to renounce our country, let another people come and settle here and outnumber us.” Ben Gurion’s understanding of Arab grievances led him to believe they could never co-exist`, according to Shlaim, that “only war, not diplomacy, would resolve the conflict.”
The militarised approach favoured by Ben Gurion may have been a product of circumstance. Netanyahu, in contrast, never having to face an external attack, perhaps believed that Israeli dominance could be established through a more long-term approach. In an article for Foreign Affairs Magazine, historian Hussein Ibish describes Netanyahu as being “content to leave things basically as they are, tinkering on the margins with new settlements and other small changes that may have a profound cumulative effect, but only in the long run”.
However, while Netanyahu preferred the long-game over all-out war, he never wavered in his conviction that Israel was a land for the Jews. “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people – and them alone,” he declared in 2015. According to Indyk, during his first term as Prime Minister in 1998, Netanyahu reluctantly went along with the bargain enshrined in the Oslo accords and “grudgingly conceded a mere 13% of the West Bank to Palestinian rule.”
However, “when that led to the collapse of his first government, he vowed never to repeat the exercise.” Instead Indyk writes, he pursued the policy of divide and rule, weakening legitimate factions of Palestinian politics, while empowering more militant groups like Hamas in Gaza to sow discord amongst Palestinian voters. He simultaneously adopted a policy of establishing Israeli settlements across the West Bank, in order to improve Israel’s territorial claim to the region. His long-term plan, according to Ibish, was to leave the “possibility of a two-state solution to fade away slowly, but inexorably.”
A one-state solution
In 2004, revisionist Jewish historian Benny Morris famously lamented that Ben Gurion had not gone far enough in expelling the Palestinians from Israel. He said, “if Ben Gurion had carried out a large expulsion and cleansed the whole country…he would have stabilized the State of Israel for generations.” Had Ben Gurion heeded Machiavelli’s advice to strike quickly and decisively against his enemies, Morris believes that he could have ended the conflict long before it escalated into a near permanent state of discord decades later.
In a European Foundation for Quality Management report, the author, Dahlia Scheindlin, a fellow at the Century Foundation, characterises Netanyahu’s Palestine strategy as one of “conflict management” rather than “conflict resolution.” As a result, she states, under Netanyahu, “there has been no change in Palestinian politics, cycles of violence are matter of course, and Palestinians are still stateless.” Netanyahu has been criticised for taking an incremental approach rather than a decisive one, choosing neither to take the land by force or treat the Palestinians well.
Ignoring the morality of the tactics, these authors and Morris, are essentially echoing Said and Beinart’s belief that Israelis and Palestinians must co-exist when both have a legitimate claim to the land or instead take over that land in its entirety. By that logic, any Prime Minister wishing to resolve the conflict would have to take an all-or-nothing stand, decisively laying claim to the area by driving out the Arab population residing there or be willing to create a state in which Palestinians can be treated humanely and fairly. This would essentially be the one-state solution.
Naftali Bennet’s options
Naftali Bennet may be forced to confront the issue sooner rather than later. In the final days of the Netanyahu government, 40 settler families established an illegal outpost on Palestinian owned land in the West Bank. Bennet will have to make a decision on whether to condone those settlements or whether to remove them. Either decision will have political and security ramifications.
The idea that Bennet could continue to claim and hold the occupied settlements by force seems like a far-fetched one, especially given popular support for Palestine in the West. Continuing Netanyahu’s settlement policy would also likely perpetuate the cycle of violence and may even force Biden’s administration to withhold crucial military support for Israel. Most unrealistically, a Ben Gurion style exodus of the Palestinian people would be unfathomable in today’s day and age outside the constraints of war.
On the other hand, dismantling settlements in recognition of Palestinian claims to the land, as proposed by Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s former Foreign Minister, amongst others, would undermine Bennet’s credibility amongst the far-right factions of his party and electorate.
Both approaches would also have to consider international sentiments. Both Netanyahu and Ben Gurion acknowledged the need to form international alliances and made several concessions in order to maintain strong partnerships abroad. Ben Gurion was particularly inclined to the West, allying with both Great Britain and France during his time as Prime Minister. Netanyahu, unconstrained by the rampant Arab nationalism that Ben Gurion faced, adopted a more antagonistic tactic with the West but managed to establish relations, if not good relations, with several dominant powers in the Middle East.
All of these considerations beg the million-dollar question – if neither war nor diplomacy can create peace, what instead, can?
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