By Jeremy R. Hammond
When Benjamin Netanyahu declared this week that he would work to prevent a Palestinian state from being established if reelected as Israeli Prime Minister, the mainstream media described it as a “reversal” from a policy speech he gave in 2009, in which he ostensibly expressed support for a two-state solution. Then he insisted two days later that his policy view hasn’t changed, prompting mainstream commentators to accuse him of blatant inconsistency. A closer examination, however, reveals that this inconsistency is an invention of the media. The real lesson from this episode is in how well it illustrates the institutional myopia among mainstream commentators, and how the mainstream discussion serves only to perpetuate the illusions required to maintain US policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The ‘Flip-Flop’ Narrative
Certainly, when Netanyahu promised to prevent Palestinian statehood, he was saying something he thought that at least a plurality of Israeli voters wanted to hear, in order to win the election. And his tactic appears to have worked.
Pre-election polls showed the Zionist Union ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud party. Then, in what the New York Times described as a “seemingly desperate bid to rally support halfway through the balloting,” Netanyahu “went on a tirade against Israel’s Arab citizens.” He said that the Israeli right-wing was “in danger” because “Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations.”He also promised that a Palestinian state would not be established if he was reelected.
When Likud emerged victorious, the Times described it as a “stunning turnabout” attributable to Netanyahu “promising that no Palestinian state would be established as long as he remained in office and insulting Arab citizens.”
That wasn’t the only turnaround mainstream media has perceived, however. In the New York Times, Jodi Rudoren described Netanyahu’s rejection of Palestinian statehood as having “reversed” his 2009 “endorsement of a two-state solution”. Her colleague Isabel Kershner concurred that it was “a reversal of a stance he had taken six years earlier.” William Booth in the Washington Post likewise asserted that Netanyahu’s remarks “appeared to reverse” his “previous declarations of support for a sovereign Palestinian state.” John Hudson and Column Lynch at Foreign Policy wrote that Netanyahu’s “pre-election declaration that he would never allow the creation of a Palestinian state” had “completely reversed the Israeli leader’s previous support for an independent Palestine as part of a permanent peace deal between the two sides.” David Francis likewise claimed at Foreign Policy that Netanyahu had announced “that he was willing to accept the creation of an independent Palestinian state” in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, but that he “reversed course” during the election.
Unsurprisingly, this narrative is being propagated not only by the media, but also by the US government. State Department spokesman Jen Psaki chimed in that Netanyahu’s remarks indicated that he had “changed his position”, and had at least “brought into question” his commitment to a two-state solution.
But then, just two days later, according to the continuing media narrative, the Israeli Prime Minister reversed himself once again. “I don’t want a one-state solution”, Netanyahu said in an interview with NBC News. “I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.”
NBC sensationalized it as another “STUNNING REVERSAL”. It was “another reversal”, agreed Foreign Policy. CNN concurred that “Netanyahu walked back his disavowal of a two-state solution”. The Associated Press declared that Netanyahu has now “backtracked from hard-line statements against the establishment of a Palestinian state in the face of a diplomatic backlash.” In particular, Netanyahu’s rejection of Palestinian statehood had “angered the Obama administration, which views a two-state solution as a top foreign policy priority.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest noted that the US’s longstanding policy of habitually opposing any UN resolutions critical of Israel—including vetoing an uncontroversial Security Council resolution condemning Israel for illegal settlement activity in 2011—was “predicated on this idea that the two-state solution is the best outcome.” But Netanyahu during the election had said Israel he was “no longer committed to that solution”, which meant, Earnest said, that “we need to reevaluate our position in this matter”.
The question put to Obama for a Huffington Post interview was revealing: “Given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent comments on a two-state solution in the close of his campaign, can the US continue to oppose Palestinian efforts to gain statehood at the United Nations?” The US, of course, opposes Palestinian statehood at the UN in the name of supporting Palestinian statehood. The question itself laid bare the US’s true rejectionist policy, scarcely concealed behind a thin veil of rhetoric.
Obama’s answer was also revealing. He said his administration was “evaluating what’s taking place” because “we continue to believe that a two-state solution is the only way for the long-term security of Israel, if it wants to stay both a Jewish state and democratic. And I indicated to him that given his statements prior to the election, it is going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible.”
So Obama, too, laid bare the real issues, as far as Washington is concerned. The first problem is that Palestinians exist and have a tendency to procreate, which poses a threat to Israel’s identity. If the Palestinians can’t be made to accept some form of limited autonomy over an area of land they could apply the term “state” to, the alternatives are permanent occupation or annexation. With massive and growing global public opposition to Israel’s occupation and illegal colonization, it will become increasingly difficult for the US to provide the backing required for its continuance. This is what Obama meant a few moments later in the interview, when he said that “the status quo” could not be maintained “in perpetuity”. But annexation would come with its own set of problems. The world would not tolerate another apartheid state, but to respect the equal rights of the Palestinians as citizens of Israel would threaten its identify as a “Jewish state”.
Hence the best solution, insofar as US policy is concerned, remains to force the Palestinians to acquiesce to Israel’s demands in direct, US-mediated, negotiations. This brings us to the second problem, which is convincing the public to believe that the so-called “peace process” is actually intended to bring about peace, as opposed to beating the Palestinians into submission. So long as enough of the world believes that the Palestinians should have to negotiate with the Occupying Power over their own independence, Washington will be able to maintain the status quo. If, however, the “peace process” loses its credibility, the US will no longer be able to maintain the same high level of support for Israel’s criminal conduct.
The problem for Netanyahu’s comments, from the view of the Obama administration, is that such honesty makes it hard to maintain illusions.
It is true that Netanyahu did speak words expressing support for a two-state solution in 2009. What neither the Obama administration nor the mainstream media is telling the public, however, is that the two-state “solution” favored by the US and Israel differs entirely from the two-state solution favored by the rest of the planet. Though the mainstream media isn’t enlightening the public about it, what Netanyahu actually said in 2009 is quite relevant.
Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan Speech
On June 14, 2009, at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu gave a speech in which he invited Arab leaders to meet with him to “make peace”. Then he outlined what would be required for the “peace” he desired to occur. He reiterated his demand that the Palestinian leadership must “begin peace negotiations without prior conditions”. This was in accordance with US policy that the Palestinians must enter talks with Israel “without preconditions”, a euphemism meaning while Israel’s expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank continues, despite this activity being a violation of international law.
Israel, Netanyahu declared, was “committed to international agreements, and expects all sides to fulfill their obligations”. This was in accordance with US policy that the Palestinians must abide by the Oslo Accords and stick to the US-led “peace process” by engaging in negotiations with Israel, rather than appealing to institutions like United Nations, the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to resolve the conflict through the application of international law.
The “root of the conflict” was not Israel’s occupation, colonization, and rejection of Palestinian self-determination, Netanyahu declared. Rather, it was the refusal of the Palestinians “to recognize the right of the Jewish People to its own state”. This was in accordance with US policy that the Palestinians must recognize Israel’s “right to exist”, as well as the Obama administration’s subsequent acceptance of Netanyahu’s demand in the framework for negotiations that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the “Jewish state”.
Then Netanyahu declared that the illegal colonization of Palestinian land would continue; reiterated Israel’s rejection of the internationally recognized right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland; and announced that any “area in Palestinian hands”, whether or not it was called a “state”, would need to be defenseless (Palestinians could not have an army, could not control their own air space, and could not enter “military treaties”). All these preconditions, too, were in accordance with US policy and its role as mediator in the “peace process”.
If the Palestinians would agree to these demands to surrender their rights and sovereignty, Netanyahu said, only then would he be “ready to agree to a real peace agreement, a demilitarized Palestinian state side by side with the Jewish state.”
In other words, Netanyahu’s “acceptance” of “a two-state solution” to the conflict consisted of an explicit rejection of Palestinian self-determination, as well as an explicit rejection of the two-state solution founded on the principles of international law that is favored by most of the planet (the exceptions being Israel and its superpower benefactor, the US government).
The international consensus on the two-state solution is grounded in principles of international law that there is a universal right to self-determination and that the acquisition of territory by war is inadmissible. This latter principle was emphasized by the UN Security Council when, in the wake of the June 1967 Israeli-Arab war, it passed Resolution 242, which called on Israel to withdraw from the territories it had occupied: The Syrian Golan Heights; the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula; and the Palestinian territories comprised of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. This principle is also reflected in the 2004 advisory opinion of the ICJ that Israel’s separation wall and settlement regime in the occupied Palestinian territories violate international law.
The governments of Israel and the US may speak of supporting a two-state solution; but what they favor is emphatically not the same as the two-state solution. The entire framework for negotiations under the US-led Oslo “peace process” is premised on rejecting the applicability of international law to the conflict. Its whole purpose is to prevent the implementation of the two-state solution and instead to force a different “solution” on the Palestinians; namely, the Palestinians must surrender their internationally recognized rights, including the right of refugees from the ethnic cleansing of Palestine to return to their homeland. And until the Palestinians agree to these terms of surrender, Israel will continue its oppression and violence against them, as well as prejudice the outcome of “peace process” negotiations on borders by continuing to illegally expand settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Notwithstanding the actual meaning of Netanyahu’s words, the Washington Post reported his Bar-Ilan speech under the headline, “Netanyahu Backs 2-State Goal: Endorsement Comes With Prerequisites for Palestinians”. The New York Times headline likewise announced: “Netanyahu Backs Palestinian State, With Caveats”. Neither the Post nor the Times bothered to elaborate for readers that the “Prerequisites” or “Caveats” accompanying his words of support in fact consisted of an unambiguous rejection of the two-state solution and included demands that the Palestinians surrender their internationally recognized rights and sovereignty.
President Obama similarly responded to Netanyahu’s speech with praise, calling it an “important step forward” that showed how “committed” Netanyahu was to a two-state solution. It was a “positive” step, Obama told the press, while taking the occasion to reemphasize the longstanding US policy of treating Israel’s “security” as “non-negotiable”—unlike Israel’s obligation not to violate international law or Palestinians’ rights, including the right to self-determination and the right of return, which are very much matters to be negotiated away in the framework of the “peace process”.
Given what Netanyahu actually said, and the true meaning behind his words, it is evident that his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech was perfectly consistent with his election promise to prevent a Palestinian state from being established. So why the pretense to the contrary?
The Significance of Netanyahu’s ‘Flip-Flop’
The Obama administration’s policy with regard to the conflict has been and continues to be synonymous with the Netanyahu government’s. The narrative being propagated by the media serves one simple purpose: to obfuscate the fact that this US policy has always been to block implementation of the two-state solution, meaningless rhetoric about support for “a two-state solution” notwithstanding.
That is not to say that there isn’t a difference of opinion between the Obama and Netanyahu regimes. The Obama administration’s frustration with Netanyahu over his recent comments is certainly understandable. The problem with Netanyahu, from the Obama administration’s point of view, is that he makes it very difficult for the US government to sustain the illusion that it supports Palestinian self-determination. Statements like Netanyahu’s make it hard for the US to maintain the perception that it is an “honest broker” in the Israel-Palestinian conflict and that it supports Palestinians’ rights.
It is the same problem that arose in March of 2010 when Israel announced plans for further illegal settlement construction after US Vice President Joe Biden had arrived in the country as part of the administration’s efforts to revive the stalled “peace process”. That sparked what Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael B. Oren theatrically described as “a crisis of historic proportions” in US-Israeli relations.
There had been countless other Israeli announcements of plans to expand settlements. The distinguishing characteristic of this particular announcement is that it was done while a high-level US official was in the country on a much-publicized mission to restart “peace” talks. The problem was strictly that the timing of this particular announcement drew unwanted attention to the true nature of the US-led “peace process” and risked undermining US efforts at managing perceptions, including among its Arab allies, which in turn undermined the US’s overarching policy in the Middle East, aimed at maintaining its hegemony over the region, including through the use of military force.
“What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan”, Biden reportedly lectured Netanyahu. “That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.”
As US Central Command (CENTCOM) commander General David Petraeus explained in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [CENTCOM Area of Responsibility]. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support.”
The significance of Netanyahu’s recent remarks is not that they represent typical election flip-flopping or demonstrate some change in Israeli policy. The significance is that his comments summarized the Israeli government’s longstanding policies concerning the Palestinians, and in doing so also revealed the true nature of US policy—and how Netanyahu has been making it exceedingly difficult for the Obama administration to maintain illusions.
As the editor-in-chief of the Israeli daily Haaretz, Aluf Benn, observed, “Benjamin Netanyahu won the election because he delivered a crystal-clear sharp message to his voters: I am the true right and I am committed to the values of the ‘national camp,’ topped by hatred of Arabs and opposition to withdrawal from territories conquered by Israel in 1967. This is what his voters wanted to hear and they rewarded him generously at the polling stations.”
The episode lays bare the prevailing racism among Israeli Jews. Indeed, the Zionist project itself is predicated on racist ideology. It was this racist ideology that led to the ethnic cleansing of three-quarters of a million Arabs from Palestine in order to establish the “Jewish state”, and it continues to underlie Israeli policies today—policies that, meaningless rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, are fully backed by the US government, financially, diplomatically, and militarily.
Like Netanyahu, other prominent Israelis in government do little to conceal their racism. The New York Times relayed one insightful incident that occurred during the election:
Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s nationalist foreign minister, stared coolly at the Arab politician sitting at the opposite end of a glass table during a televised election debate.
“Why did you come to this studio, why not to Gaza, or Ramallah? Why are you even here?” asked Mr. Lieberman, who frequently calls Israel’s Arab citizens traitors and suggests that their towns be transferred to Palestinian control. “You are not wanted here; you are a Palestinian citizen.”
The politician, Ayman Odeh, the leader of an alliance of Arab parties formed to contest Israeli elections on Tuesday, appeared unruffled.
“I am very welcome in my homeland,” he said, a subtle dig at Mr. Lieberman, an immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Moldova. “I am part of the nature, the surroundings, the landscape,” he said in Arabic-accented Hebrew.
The true significance of the “flip-flop” incident lays scarcely concealed beneath the surface of the US media’s fictional narrative. Jodi Rudoren acknowledged in the New York Times that Netanyahu “fulfilled many world leaders’ suspicions that he was never really serious about peace negotiations.” Times columnist Roger Cohen noted that Netanyahu’s rejection of Palestinian self-determination reflects “a wide section of Israeli society” that “prefers its Palestinians invisible behind barriers.” These candid remarks are hardly profound; but they are nevertheless remarkable for having actually appeared in the mainstream discussion—and for illustrating the cognitive dissonance inherent in the media narrative. Indeed, Netanyahu himself stated explicitly that the premise that he had reversed himself was false.
“I haven’t changed my policy”, he told NBC. “I never changed [my position from] my speech in Bar-Ilan University six years ago calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.”
That, of course, simply means that the Palestinians will have to accept the US and Israel’s demands to return to the “peace process” and negotiate away their rights rather than appealing to the international community and seeking legal remedy through the application of international law.
The editorial board of the New York Times, too, noticed that Netanyahu’s actual deeds over the past six years (including “aggressively” building illegal settlements “and never engaging seriously in negotiations”) had “long convinced many people that he has no interest in a peace agreement.” Indeed, it must take have taken an extraordinary amount of self-discipline on the part of mainstream American commentators—including the Times editors—to maintain the pretense to the contrary.
The editors indicated that they have finally become convinced: Netanyahu’s rejection of Palestinian statehood, they added, “laid bare his duplicity” and “confirmed Palestinian suspicions”. But one can reasonably expect that it won’t be long before the Times editors are back to declaring their opposition to any “unilateral” moves at the UN by the Palestinians and affirming their support for the US-led “peace process”.
Netanyahu spoke honestly about his government’s longstanding policy of rejecting Palestinian self-determination, and it won him an election. He will face criticism at home for seemingly walking back from his promise to oppose a two-state solution if reelected, but it isn’t likely he’ll lose any sleep over this because his actions will prove that he is indeed committed to that election promise.
He will face criticism from the US for having put in jeopardy the Obama administration’s ability to maintain its policy of supporting Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians and rejection of their rights. But the Obama administration let Netanyahu know he had stepped out of line, and Netanyahu obediently reaffirmed his commitment to the US-led “peace process”. That alone was not enough, of course, to provide the requisite cover for the US to maintain its own policy. More will be required of Netanyahu and the new Israeli government. It might take another so-called “freeze” of new approvals for settlement construction, or some other such symbolic commitment to the Oslo process. But it is unlikely that a political gaffe from the Israeli Prime Minister will spell the end of the “peace process”.
At most, it will mean a significant shift in tactics for the US. There is already talk about the US itself now turning to the very institution is has long insisted should have no role in the “peace process” (apart from the Secretariat giving his endorsement to Quartet statements). This is indicated by the Obama’ administration’s statements about reassessing its policy. “We’re currently evaluating our approach”, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “We’re not going to prejudge what we would do if there was a UN action”. The purpose of the shift in tactics would be to maintain the overarching policy. A former member of the Obama administration’s Middle East peace team, Ilan Goldenberg, told Foreign Policy “that Washington might be inclined to support a Security Council resolution backing a two-state solution as an alternative to the Palestinian effort to hold Israel accountable at the ICC.” Such a resolution, Goldenberg added, “could protect Israel from a worse outcome”.
And the American intelligentsia, of course, will play along with the whole charade, of course, and enlighten the public about the importance of preventing the Palestinians from making “unilateral” moves at the UN and ensuring that any “peace” efforts are undertaken within the framework of the Oslo process. Israel’s occupation and illegal settlement regime will meanwhile continue, as ever, with US support.
– Jeremy R. Hammond is an independent political analyst and a recipient of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism. He is the founding editor of Foreign Policy Journal and the author of Ron Paul vs. Paul Krugman: Austrian vs. Keynesian economics in the financial crisis and The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination: The Struggle for Palestine and the Roots of the Israeli-Arab Conflict. His forthcoming book is Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. He blogs at JeremyRHammond.com. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.