Retired US Congressman Barney Frank, long time liberal Democrat and strong Obama supporter, repeated two interesting questions last week in Sydney that continually baffle observers of the Middle East.
How is it that Israel, the only liberal democracy in the region, surrounded by bad guys and badder guys has such a poor image?
And how is it always the Arabs/Palestinians who walk away from multiple peace offers and yet Israel is blamed for the failure of peace?
Prime Minister Netanyahu was pilloried around the world because of his one throwaway statement during the March 2015 elections when he said that there was no possibility of a Palestinian State.
After the election when clarifying what he meant to say, Netanyahu argued that whilst he himself remained committed to the ideal of a Two State for Two People solution, he could not see how it was practical at this point in time due to the lack of a partner and the security concerns that would entail.
Taking his explanation at face value, it seemed an unremarkable statement of the obvious.
Of course what causes the controversy is different estimations of Netanyahu’s sincerity.
Bibi has few friends in high places outside of Israel and ironically perhaps even fewer within his own Likud party.
What is interesting is that those who know him best, those closest to him, those within his party, actually do believe that he is sincere about the establishment of a Palestinian State if Israel’s security concerns can be met and therefore oppose him as they fear just such an outcome.
Among Likud members of the Knesset on these issues, it seems that Netanyahu and his Defence Minster Ya’alon are a small and isolated faction within their own party.
It is Bibi’s own coalition partner, Naphtali Bennett, who has taken the lead role in criticising multiple decisions of the government he is a part of. And in this he certainly carries some of the most vocal Likud ministers with him.
The fact is that the government of Israel’s most effective opposition party is mainly members of itself.
The two leading figures in the actual formal opposition are Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid).
And here’s the thing, Lapid has strongly and publically supported
Netanyahu on issues related to the conflict right through 2015 and into this year. He too says it is simply impractical to allow a Palestinian State into the foreseeable future and he too wishes to strengthen the existing settlement blocks that should ultimately stay inside Israel proper after any resolution of the conflict.
In fact if anything he is critical of Netanyahu for not taking stronger measure in regards to the stabbings and terror that is currently taking place and he is critical of Netanyahu for not taking the Hamas tunnel threat more seriously.
That is, he is arguably to the right of Netanyahu on these matters.
So irrelevant had Herzog become to the electorate and with opinion polls showing Lapid gaining seats at his expense, that in January Herzogbegan a major diplomatic offensive beginning with a trip to France.
Surprise surprise in France Herzog stated that there was no possibility of a Palestinian State into the foreseeable future but that unlike Bibi – said Herzog – he was sincere in his dream of a Two State Solution.
It was no accident that Herzog chose his meetings with French President Hollande and Foreign Minister Fabius to begin making his pitch as it is of course the French, having learned so little in the past year or so, who are making the most noise about imposing a Palestinian State in the absence of any agreement.
And this of course encourages the Palestinians to continue with their incitement and terror as no matter what they do, the French promise to grant them a state.
“I have always been a proponent of the two-state vision, but we have to be realistic. It cannot happen at this time. Hatred and incitement among the Palestinians are just too great.
France must cease promoting international resolutions that undermine Israel. … The Israelis will not accept dictates from the global community.”
Herzog also criticised a recent European Union resolution limiting EU member states’ commercial deals to inside the 1967 lines, effectively attempting to harm business with Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, saying:
“Decisions along those lines are a reward to terrorism and to the BDS movement. They cripple the chances of regional progress.”
Herzog gave the French and the EU exactly the same message as Netanyahu.
The problem is not the message, but how the world perceives who the messenger is.
Just as Bibi finds himself to the left in the party he leads, Herzog’s comments unleashed a storm of criticism from within his own party who view him as having moved to the right.
With both of them actually very much in the centre, along with Lapid.
Just in case members of Herzog’s own party might think he went a little overboard being overseas and dazzled by being received by the President of France whilst only an opposition leader, Herzog reinforced his views on Israeli Army radio during an interview:
“I don’t see a possibility at the moment of implementing the two-state solution. I want to yearn for it, I want to move toward it, I want negotiations, I sign on to it and I am obligated to it, but I don’t see the possibility of doing it right now.”
And then on the following Tuesday at the Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv Herzog spoke about “the settlements”.
Herzog told the conference that he saw:
“the need to complete the security barrier around all of the settlement blocs.
Routing the fence around the blocs would both protect the people living there from attacks and send a message to the Palestinians that they will remain a part of Israel in any future negotiations.”
By the way, despite the public criticism of Herzog from within his own party, on Feb the 7th they formally adopted his position as official party policy. Nothing unusual there.
There is a reality and a consensus in Israel that evades many who watch from afar.
Netanyahu, Herzog, Lapid and the people of Israel know that there is no possibility of a Palestinian State until the Palestinians want one enough to accept the Jewish State of Israel (as President Obama called Israelon the 27th of January) alongside it. And that simply does not look like happening any time soon.
That is the reality.
The vast majority of the so called settlers live in blocks established by Labour.
The Palestinians need to understand that no government of Israel – left or right – will give them up.
And that is the consensus.
On Tuesday this week Herzog visited the 4th largest town in the West Bank and deepest into its northern part, Ariel, and declared that it should be retained by Israel under any future peace agreement, along with the Etzion Block south of Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim to Jerusalem’s East.
In the real world the Israelis have heard and paid attention to Palestinian Authority Minister for Foreign Affairs Riyad Malki when on the 15th of February in a press conference in Japan he said:
“We will never go back and sit again in direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.”
Thank you France.
Netanyahu, Herzog and Lapid give expression to what may or may not sound like different dreams – but they understand and hold to what is the same reality and consensus.
And in the real world, they are united on where Israel’s future borders should be, as are the vast majority of the Israeli public, despite discussions on how to get there.
When Israel’s friends and allies realise this, the message will become more important than the messenger.
Dr Ron Weiser AM
Hon Life Pres ZC of NSW
ZFA Public Affairs Chairman