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U.S. Scheming for a Palestinian State Unwittingly Strengthens Netanyahu

Overwhelming Israeli opposition to rewarding Palestinian terrorism with a state puts the prime minister’s adversaries in a bind

Gadi Taub
February 22, 2024
Herzl’s Children
Gadi Taub reports on the two ongoing wars that will shape Israel's future: the military and diplomatic conflict between Israel and her enemies, and the struggle between Israel's Western-oriented elites and her democratic institutions.
See all in Herzl’s Children →︎

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If the news that the U.S. is going to recognize a Palestinian state that doesn’t exist was intended to break up Prime Minister Netanyahu’s wartime coalition, it’s unlikely to work. Contrary to what the Biden administration assumes, the obstacle to the “two-state solution” is Israel’s electorate, not its prime minister. The more the administration tries to ram this misguided plan down the throat of traumatized Israelis who are in no mood to compromise their security, the more the country’s prime minister will recover political support.

The calculation here is not a difficult one to make: Netanyahu’s coalition is united in the belief that promising the Palestinians a state in the middle of a war for national survival would be a declaration by Israel’s government that murdering, raping, and kidnapping Israelis is the way for Palestinians to achieve their national ambitions. Even the prime minister’s rivals in the coalition, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, have had to publicly support this consensus.

If this is not clear to the White House, it may be because the administration is clinging religiously to its failed “regional integration” policy—its appeasement of Iran—while relying on a uniformly leftist Israeli press that is eager to tell it what it wants to hear, about a nonexistent moderate electorate that will deliver a moderate two-statist coalition, if only Netanyahu can be removed from office.

One can imagine Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan calculating that by replacing Netanyahu with a leader who is willing to “courageously” agree to the two-state model, however far in the future it may be, the recent disasters of U.S. regional policy will turn out to look like a success: A new Palestinian proto-state backed by the U.S. would not only help to rescue Biden’s reelection prospects in Michigan, but also would prop up the administration’s Iran policy, forcing Israel to “de-escalate,” i.e., accommodate Iran’s wishes. And then, a newly moderate Israel and a revitalized Palestinian Authority would be incorporated into the supposedly stabilizing mission of regional integration, as U.S. allies “learn to share the neighborhood” with Iran and its proxies. Remove Netanyahu, and all will be well.

If that’s the plan, it’s a fantasy from start to finish.

From day one, Israel’s war against Hamas has threatened to discredit the Middle East strategy of three Democratic administrations. It was precisely this strategy, the appeasement and “integration” of Iran, that invited the war in Gaza in the first place and threatens to escalate armed conflict with Iran’s other regional assets—Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and IRGC-led militias in Syria and Iraq. Had the U.S. not paved the way for Iran’s rising power and regional influence, Iran’s Palestinian proxy would have had neither the confidence nor the means to perpetrate the Oct. 7 massacre.

Trying to force a solution on Israel without any hope of peace will only cause more Israelis to believe that our erstwhile American ally has turned against us.

The longer the Gaza war continues, the greater the chance that it will bring down the failed “regional integration” policy. That is why from day one, the administration’s policy has been to circumscribe the conflict, both geographically and politically. According to the White House, the Oct. 7 attack was just the latest chapter in the long history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not the Iranian-Israeli war that it really is. In support of this false framing is a false answer: The Israeli-Palestinian problem demands an Israeli-Palestinian solution.

Thus the Biden administration wants to force Israel to commit to an “irreversible path to a Palestinian state” on “the day after.” This was supposed to split Netanyahu’s governing coalition in the middle of a war. Because, the calculation goes, if the U.S. forces the issue now, Netanyahu will have to either acquiesce, and lose the right flank of his coalition (Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, and the rest of their parties), or else take a clear stand against it—giving the moderate flank of his coalition (i.e., Gantz, Eisenkot and their National Unity party) an excuse to exit.

The departure of Gantz and Eisenkot would not automatically topple the government, since the right-wing bloc still has a majority in the Knesset without National Unity. However, it could deprive the coalition of the broad consensus it needs to conduct the war, setting off a chain-reaction leading to elections, that would, the White House probably hopes, elevate Gantz to the premiership. A moderate with strong ties to the Washington establishment, Gantz would then help put things back on the “irreversible path to a Palestinian state,” making the Middle East safe for regional integration again.

Israel’s progressive press, along with polls that showed a decline in Netanyahu’s approval after the war began and a corresponding rise in Gantz’s popularity, likely created the impression of a moderate alternative waiting in the wings, requiring but a push from the Americans. Indeed, as minister of defense in the Lapid-Bennet coalition from 2020-2022, Gantz was known for enforcing strict limits on Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, while turning a blind eye to Palestinian illegal settlement in the same areas. He also attempted to revitalize Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2021 by hosting Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, at his home in Rosh Ha’ain. Since the war began, Gantz has refused to answer questions about whether he supports a Palestinian state—allowing him to signal to the left and to the White House that he remains on board without killing his chances for reelection, which depend on support from the center and the moderate right.

It was the U.S. push to recognize a Palestinian state, however, which forced Gantz to take a public stand against it, putting him shoulder-to-shoulder with Netanyahu. Recent polls explain why: 44% of Israelis say that their views have shifted to the right in the wake of Oct. 7. More than at any time in the past, American recognition of a Palestinian state would be seen by Israelis as categorically anti-Israel, a reward to Iran for its aggression, and a prize to the Palestinians for having massacred Jews. Rather than trap Netanyahu between Gantz and Smotrich, the Biden administration has trapped Gantz: If he publicly supports a Palestinian state, he will not survive politically to see it through. He therefore has had no other choice but to come out explicitly against it—along with everyone else in the cabinet.

Last Sunday, the cabinet voted unanimously for the following resolution:

1. Israel utterly rejects international diktats regarding a permanent settlement with the Palestinians. A settlement, if it is to be reached, will come about solely through direct negotiations between the parties, without preconditions.
2. Israel will continue to oppose unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. Such recognition in the wake of the October 7th massacre would be a massive and unprecedented reward to terrorism and would prevent any future peace settlement.

Then on Wednesday, a huge majority of the Knesset (99 out of 120) affirmed the cabinet’s position and voted in favor of a similar resolution, with only nine members opposing and the rest abstaining. Both votes are a clear indication of a mainstream consensus that, if it recognizes a Palestinian state, the U.S. would be throwing Israel under the bus.

No previous U.S. administration has contemplated recognition unless the Palestinians commit to end the conflict, partition the land, recognize the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their own nation-state, and sign a final accord of peace and normalization. Many Israelis were once willing to recognize a Palestinian state under these conditions. I was once among them. But the numbers declined after Yasser Arafat rejected a full and fair partition deal at Camp David in 2000, and the Second Intifada ensued.

Now, after Oct. 7, this constituency has almost disappeared. At this point, most Israelis would not accept partition even if the Palestinians made the commitments they have disdained to date. We learned this lesson the hard way: We can’t afford to exchange land for promises which can easily be broken. We can’t allow for even a remote possibility of a future terror state perched above our coastal plain, with less than 9 miles to travel before reaching the center of Tel Aviv. Trying to force a solution on Israel without any hope of peace will only cause more Israelis to believe that our erstwhile American ally has turned against us.

The harder the Biden administration presses its case, the more likely the result of the next election will make Netanyahu’s “extremist right-wing coalition” look moderate by comparison. A more “extreme” and more determined coalition could well move to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and reclaim the West Bank before it hatches a much larger and more formidable terror state than the one we are now fighting in Gaza.

Gadi Taub is an author, historian, and op-ed columnist. He is co-host of Tablet’s Israel Update podcast.