Netanyahu backtracks on rejecting two states, but damage is already done

On Monday – the eve of Israeli elections – he unequivocally disavowed his support – first given in a speech in 2009 – for a Palestinian state .

By Thursday, however, Netanyahu was in full reverse saying in an interview with the US channel MSNBC that’s not what he had meant at all.

The reality is that the Israeli prime minister’s remarks are simply explicable as a naked appeal to two different political contingencies.

Struggling in opinion polls before the election he told Israeli rightwingers what they wanted to hear to persuade them to rally to his party flag: that no Palestinian state would be created on his watch ; that there would be no evacuation of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, and of his commitment to continued settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem.

“Anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel,” Netanyahu told the Israeli web site NRG on Monday. “There is a real threat here that a leftwing government will join the international community and follow its orders.”

Asked directly if that meant there would be no Palestinian state if he was re-elected, Netanyahu answered: “Correct.”

It worked. Perhaps too well according to some Israeli sources who say the win was far bigger than Netanyahu had anticipated.

Netanyahu’s new problem is that – hoist with his own petard – he has now been obliged to spin both the comments he made on the even of the elections, and his wider tactics during the campaign, including his pointed breach of protocol in making a speech to Congress that US president Barack Obama did not want him to make.

By Thursday Netanyahu was singing a different tune. “I haven’t changed my policy,” he told MSNBC. “What has changed is the reality.”

Faced with stark warnings from senior US officials that Washington was “rethinking” its approach to the Middle East peace process following Netanyahu’s disavowal of the two-state solution, and the threat of tougher EU sanctions, his flip-flop represents an attempt to stave off a different and more serious challenge.

The result was his interview on Thursday in which he insisted he meant no “disrespect” to Obama, backed a two-state solution, and saw the US as Israel’s most important ally – the last of which at least is certainly heart felt.

No disrespect to Obama
The reality is that Netanyahu is playing a game that has become wearily familiar to the diplomats and leaders who have dealt with him since he was re-elected to office in 2009 – paying lip service to a lukewarm and vague commitment to a Palestinian state he has no intention of ever honouring.

In recent years he has deployed a series of excuses to defer meaningful progress: the priority of the threat of a nuclear Iran; the demand that Palestinians should recognise Israel as a Jewish state, and the notion that any withdrawal from the occupied territories would allow the creations of “Hamastan B” as he has called it, or permit Isis to reach the doorstep of Jerusalem.

On the diplomatic front the game is both simple and familiar: to maintain a critical ambiguity in the face of the real facts on the ground represented by the increase in settlement building by the Israeli government in the midst of the last round of peace talks.

It is a restatement in theory of a support for two states, while in practice never finding the conditions suitable.

The problem is that the international community has seen this ruse too often for it to be effective any more. Netanyahu, as diplomats have made clear and anticipated ahead of his re-election, is a known quantity whose actions in the past have left no room for any benefit of the doubt.

His nakedly political statements have also helped validate Palestinian moves to internationalise their claims for their own state by allowing them to argue that Netanyahu has rejected a negotiated settlement even if he has tried to row it back.

And the mood among European and US officials suggests that emollient words will not be enough. The only way for Netanyahu to head off an escalating diplomatic crisis in the coming weeks and months, will be a concrete demonstration of his commitment to negotiations with – as a first step – a demand for a freeze on all settlement building.

While western diplomats have been at pains to point out no decisions have yet been made on a change of direction, what was clear at the week’s end is that an appetite not only exists for a new approach but that frustration with Israel’s prime minister has reached a new high.

“Words matter,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest after Netanyahu’s interview with MSNBC.

“Steps that the United States has taken at the United Nations had been predicated on this idea that the two-state solution is the best outcome,” he said.

“Now our ally in these talks has said that they are no longer committed to that solution. That means we need to re-evaluate our position in this matter, and that is what we will do moving forward.”

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