Jonathan Shamir and Aaron Simons
It has now been fourteen years since the Left were exiled to opposition in Israel. Despite the Zionist Union’s hopeful campaign, Netanyahu showed his political experience as he undercut his right-wing coalition partners (Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi) by pandering to their supporters in the final stretch of the election campaign. The result is the most right-wing government in Israeli history.
Attempting to unpick what Netanyahu actually believes, especially in relation to the Palestinians, is a challenge. He has gone back and forth on the issue of a two-state solution innumerable times. His 1996 election campaign centred on the backlash to the Oslo accords, whilst the campaign for his second tenure saw him unequivocally advocate a two-state solution. Then just before the 2015 election, he stated in Conservative newspaper Makor Rishon “If I’m elected, there will be no Palestinian State.” He subsequently brushed off this comment as an innocent faux pas after criticism from the international community, and on his recent visit to Britain stated “I am ready to resume direct negotiations with the Palestinians with no conditions whatsoever to enter negotiations, and I’m willing to do so immediately”.
How do we best understand Netanyahu’s continuous reversals? Netanyahu’s ambiguity is partly the product of the political tightrope he has to walk. Bibi must appear to be sufficiently enthused about a two state solution to placate the international community, whilst prevaricating enough to allow his right-wing Greater Israel coalition to believe it won’t actually happen.
However there are deeper reasons behind this apparent inconsistency on the two state solution. The best diagnosis of Netanyahu comes in Foreign Affairs, where Natan Sachs argues this back-and-forth reflects an anti-solutionist strategy, where Netanyahu simply believes there are currently no solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sachs diagnoses Netanyahu as a strategic conservative, choosing perpetual occupation over any potentially hazardous decisions.
This anti-solutionism is not based on nothing. The current administrative split between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Abbas’s diminutive mandate, persistent incitement from the Palestinian Administration and Hamas and the current wave of unpredictable violence all feed Netanyahu’s view that a realistic peace is currently impossible. Not that Netanyahu has much room to manoeuvre anyway. Any positive moves towards a two-state solution, such as a repeat of the 2010 settlement freeze, would shatter his fragile coalition.
Yet there is more to Netanyahu than conservative strategy and coalition politics, and this anti-solutionism is not merely a tactical decision. It would be wrong to portray Bibi’s worldview as traditional pessimism resulting from a sober and detached analysis. Netanyahu’s view comes right from the heart of Revisionist Zionism.
Netanyahu may be a political chameleon, but his party is not. Netanyahu’s habitat, the jungle of Israeli Rightist politics, provides the ideological view that shapes Netanyahu’s strategy. Netanyhu’s charisma and the Bibi persona may divert attention away from his party, but it is Likud ideology that holds the key to understanding Bibi.
Likud follows a secular Revisionist Zionism, rooted in the writings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, which contains three key elements which influence Netanyahu today and produce his anti-solutionist strategy: the Iron Wall, a vision of Greater Israel, and a view of the Palestinians as the implacable enemy.
Jabotinsky’s seminal 1923 essay ‘The Iron Wall’ argued that Zionism would only survive behind a barrier of force – an iron wall. Violence was not only legitimate, but necessary in bringing the Palestinians to a point of desperation at which they would negotiate with the Jewish state. For Netanyahu, it is this idea of necessary violence that justifies continuing the occupation in perpetuity. This is the core of his anti-solutionist strategy.
The concept of ‘Greater Israel’ is prominent in right-wing Israeli politics today, in the form of both secular and religious nationalism. There is very little evidence that Likud MKs believe in a Palestinian state, or oppose settlement expansion. Danny Danon, on the right wing of Likud and the current Israeli envoy to the UN, promotes a three-state solution where Israel’s responsibility towards the Palestinian people is abrogated to Jordan and Egypt. Netanyahu’s anti-solutionism is not just a tactical decision, but one that also follows Likud ideology in allowing for the settlement project to continue. Netanyahu’s calls for Abbas to come to the table with no preconditions ring hollow as settlements are erected in the background.
Most importantly, underpinning Netanyahu’s strategy is his view of the Palestinians as an implacable enemy. This was the core of Jabotinksy’s justification for the Iron Wall – the belief that Palestinians would never accept Zionism. Netanyahu takes this even further: he views the Palestinians as radicalised Jew-haters, meaning that no political agreement can cure the conflict. It is within this mind-set that Netayahu can make the extraordinary claim (which he later retracted) that the Mufti, rather than Hitler, came up with the Final Solution. Anti-solutionism makes sense if you see Palestinians as inherently anti-Semitic.
Sachs is right; Netanyahu is a strategic conservative and anti-solutionist. But he is not devoid of ideology, and we view Netanyahu as a traditional pessimist at our peril. Netanyahu is much more than that. Jabotinsky lives on in Netanyahu today.