Recent statements by Yitzhak Herzog, leader of the opposition Zionist Union (primarily the Labor Party) and by Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition Yesh Atid Party, mark a very welcome turn towards greater realism and signify a broadening centrist consensus regarding the Palestinians.

On January 20, 2016, Herzog said “I don’t see a possibility at the moment of implementing the two-state solution” and added that if elected prime minister his priority would be to implement security measures rather than pursuing a bilateral agreement with the Palestinians. He spoke of the need “to complete the security barrier around all of the settlement blocs.”

Yair Lapid recently said, “The perceived wisdom today is that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not possible.” While he advocates steps to create greater separation between Israelis and Palestinians, Lapid emphasized that Israeli security operations in the West Bank would continue after such a separation. “The security coordination which exists today – and allows the IDF to act across the West Bank — must continue even after the separation. The Palestinian Authority will shout and claim that this is a breach of their sovereignty, but they know it is also in their own interest. If not for such coordination, Hamas will rise to power in the West Bank the same way it did in Gaza.” Herzog has made a similar statement about continuing IDF presence in any land that Israel would evacuate.

In an earlier posting in this blog I expressed regret that the Labor party has veered so far from the positions articulated by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in October 1995 in addressing the Knesset just a month before he was assassinated. In that speech, Rabin outlined his vision of a permanent settlement with the Palestinians. His main points:
• The Palestinians would have an entity “which is less than a state”
• The Jordan Valley would be Israel’s permanent security border
• Jerusalem would be united under Israeli sovereignty
• Israel’s border would be beyond the line of June 4, 1967
• Israel was against annexation and a one-state solution

The policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since his February 2009 election have been quite close to the Rabin parameters, certainly much closer than those advocated by the Labor party. While Netanyahu, in response to heavy American pressure, called for a Palestinian State in his famous Bar-Ilan University address of June 2009, it was a carefully constrained form of sovereignty, and was, in essence if not in words, Rabin’s “entity that is less than a state.”

The Labor Party under the leadership of Barak, Mitzna, Peretz, Yachimovich, and Herzog (until recently,) has doggedly advocated the two-state solution rather than Rabin’s more modest, more secure goal. The party has implied that if it were in power its highest priority would be to reach a two-state agreement with the Palestinian Authority (PA.) As shown above, Herzog is saying something quite different now.

During the last 16 years Israel has offered significant concessions trying to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. When Ehud Barak was prime minister, Israel offered a two-state proposal, first at Camp David in July 2000 and then an enhanced proposal in subsequent talks at Taba in January 2001. The Palestinians. led by Yassir Arafat, did not agree.

In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, leading the centrist Kadima party established by Ariel Sharon following the controversial unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, went even further in offering concessions, yet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas turned it down. In an interview with the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl, Abbas said, “the gaps were wide.”

Due to heavy pressure from the Obama Administration, Netanyahu agreed to an unprecedented 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank in 2010 to get negotiations going again. The result: the PA refused to even enter negotiations with Israel until the last month of the 10-month period. The talks stopped when Israel refused to extend the construction freeze.

When Secretary of State John Kerry pushed for renewed negotiations in 2013, Israel again had to pay heavily to cajol the PA to join the negotiations by agreeing to the staged release of scores of Palestinian prisoners, most of whom had committed murder or other terrorist acts that targeted civilians. Those talks collapsed in March 2014 in mutual recriminations.

Israeli voters have been highly skeptical of the approach taken by the leaders of the Labor Party since the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000, as election results clearly show. 1999 was the last time that Labor won enough votes to form a government.

Why? There is a deeply held belief among the Israeli electorate that the Palestinians really aren’t interested in reaching a peaceful status quo side by side with Israel.
This is based on numerous factors, including inflexible Palestinian demands, frequent irredentist statements by Palestinian leaders, waves of violent attacks on Jews by Palestinian Arabs stretching back nearly 100 years, the repeated public glorification of Palestinians who kill Israeli Jews, denigration of Jews and their links to the land of Israel and Jerusalem in Palestinian media and educational curricula, and the strongly rejectionist views of Israel reported in repeated Palestinian public opinion polls.

Another reason for extreme wariness is the bad experience following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, combined with Israel’s much greater vulnerability were the West Bank to be taken over by Hamas or other hostile groups. Life in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the populous coastal plain, including Ben Gurion Airport, would be paralyzed by mortar and rocket fire such as poured out of Gaza in the summer of 2014.

Israeli public opinion polls show a strong ambivalence: On one hand, consistent majorities have supported two states. On the other hand, a November 2015 Peace Index poll found that more than 70% of the Jewish public believed that “even the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement would not bring an end to Palestinian terror against Jews.” That is, the Israeli public does not believe that a two state arrangement would mean the end of the conflict.

Professor Shlomo Avineri, a leading intellectual on the left, raised eyebrows when he concluded in an October 2015 article that Palestinian views are totally inconsistent with a two-state solution. He wrote, “According to the Palestinians’ view, this is not a conflict between two national movements but a conflict between one national movement (the Palestinian) and a colonial and imperialistic entity (Israel). According to this view, Israel will end like all colonial phenomena – it will perish and disappear. Moreover, according to the Palestinian view, the Jews are not a nation but a religious community, and as such not entitled to national self-determination which is, after all, a universal imperative.”

As if to confirm Avineri’s assessment, just last week, Tawfik Tirawi, a prominent member of the PA, gave an interview in which he said “Palestine stretches from the river to the sea… a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital, is just a phase, as far as I am concerned.” He added, “Don’t think that there can be a solution to the Palestinian issue by establishing a state the borders of which are limited to the West Bank and Gaza. I challenge any Palestinian to say that the map of Palestine is limited to the West Bank and Gaza.” Fatah and the PA officials are not usually so open about their irredentist views. Tirawi’s statements clearly confirm the perceptions held by a majority of Israelis.

Starting in mid-September, Israelis have been subject to repeated murderous attacks undertaken by Palestinians. These attacks have been fomented by ongoing Palestinian incitement to violence, some from the now banned Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, some from Hamas, some from media controlled by the PA, some from imams in mosques, and some personally from the lips of PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Nearly thirty Israelis Jews have been murdered so far in this latest wave of violence, by stabbing, car-ramming, and shooting attacks. Within Israel, these attacks have evoked strong feelings of horror at the brutality on display and empathy and identification with those attacked and their families.

Finally, in the face of all these developments, we have sensible, skeptical statements by Herzog and Lapid, which bring their views closer to those of Benjamin Netanyahu and a majority of Israelis. With Herzog and Lapid rejecting the possibility of a two-state solution in the near future, it would be highly appropriate for the current narrow, right wing coalition to be replaced by a broader, more centrist coalition. Such a coalition might declare a halt in housing construction outside of the settlement blocs, a step that many in Israel have suggested and that might enhance Israel’s credibility abroad.

One hopes, as the current views of Herzog and Lapid become more widely known, particularly within the Obama Administration and in Europe, that the too well-established pattern of blaming Israel for the lack of a two state agreement and vilifying Benjamin Netanyahu as responsible for this lack might give way to a much more balanced and nuanced view. The Obama Administration and the EU have been almost blindly committed to the two-state paradigm and have consistently looked the other way rather than publicly criticizing Abbas and the PA.

Unfortunately, key figures in the Obama Administration disdain Netanyahu almost regardless of what he says, which reduces his effectiveness at persuasion. The emergence of a broad coalition opposing a two-state arrangement under present circumstances, with the foreign ministry in the hands of either Herzog or Lapid, would make it more difficult for foreign leaders to dismiss Israeli skepticism of Palestinian intentions and Israeli views of the enormous and possibly existential risks were Israel to lose security control of the West Bank. A more promising approach than the two-state paradigm would be a variant of the Jordanian option, but that’s for another discussion.