‘He’s a magician,’ the crowd chanted as Benjamin Netanyahu took the stage at Likud’s victory party. The man now on course to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister had, as has become customary, pulled off a seemingly impossible eleventh-hour win. Despite the centre-left coalescing to form Kahol Lavan, an anti-Bibi alliance, Netanyahu held onto the crown by pandering to right-wing voters on territory. In the dying days of the campaign, with polls putting Kahol Lavan on top, Bibi pledged to assert sovereignty over the settlements, a bewitching incantation for Israel’s national-religious sector. The major settlement blocs close to the 1949 armistice line would become part of Israel under almost all iterations of the two-state solution, but Bibi promised to incorporate isolated communities too — a nod and a wink to voters who oppose a Palestinian state.
Another cruel defeat has left the Israeli and diaspora Jewish left listless and angry. Labor, which governed Israel for decades, has been reduced to six out of 120 seats in the Knesset and the leftist Meretz to just four. It is an abject humiliation for a movement that didn’t think the voters could humiliate it any more. At home and abroad, Israelis will find themselves bearing the brunt of progressive frustration at what looks like a five-minutes-to-midnight moment for the Zionist peace camp. A poll last month for Haaretz showed 42 per cent of Israelis are in favour of applying sovereignty to all or part of Judea and Samaria, the historic Jewish heartlands now known as the West Bank, which are occupied by three million Palestinians and 400,000 Israelis. These numbers, combined with Netanyahu’s canny settlements pledge, will be seized on as proof that Israelis have been made complacent by a booming economy and a strikingly pro-Israel administration in Washington, DC. There is truth to this but it sidesteps the larger cause: the tragedy of Palestinian rejectionism. It takes two to make a two-state solution and one state has lost patience, while the other has yet to show serious interest.
Whether you deem Israel’s military presence in Judea and Samaria an illegal occupation or the product of a territorial dispute following a war of self-defence, the Palestinians’ refusal to agree a two-state solution is, as I argued on CoffeeHouse on Tuesday, the immoveable roadblock to peace. The topography of the territories would make a unilateral Israeli withdrawal an invitation to recreate the Gaza rocket factory in the rugged Judean hills that overlook Jerusalem. Israeli right-wingers spy an opportunity to right the historical injustice of partition by applying sovereignty to much or all of Judea and Samaria. The world would see this as an annexation but the Israeli right doesn’t care; these are rightful owners who prefer to act like thieves.
We may dispute whether the territories are occupied, but the people who live in them indisputably are. Ninety-eight per cent of Palestinians are self-governing but surrounded by the IDF; Israeli settlers, too, live under military rather than civilian law. Palestinians’ and Israelis’ civil rights are infringed on a daily basis by this occupation. Israeli right-wingers, posing as liberals, say sovereignty would improve the lives and safeguard the rights of Palestinians (which is mostly true) and could be achieved without endangering Israel’s Jewish and democratic character (which is mostly untrue). Incorporating Judea and Samaria entirely would either bring Israel to the brink of a binational state or turn it into a sub-democracy, with full citizenship for Israeli Jews and Arabs and something less for Palestinian Arabs. Either way, Zionism would be dead in the desert. Bibi is indeed a magician and he may yet make respectable, democratic Israel disappear.
As I argued on Tuesday, in the absence of any other solution, Eyal Lewin’s ‘no-solution solution’ is the least worst option. If Netanyahu moves to extend sovereignty to the settlement blocs — which Donald Trump has probably already green-lit — the international community should recognise it. Thereafter, the Oslo Accords should be abrogated and Judea, Samaria and Gaza made a single disputed territory, albeit under the security arrangements currently in place in Areas A, B and C. If the Palestinians continue to reject peace, this set-up would remain indefinitely. If Israel annexed any part of the disputed territory, it would be interpreted as an assertion of sovereignty over the whole and Israel would be expected to extend citizenship to all five million residents.
This approach could only be enforced by the United States and Trump is unlikely to get on board; however, it would forge an international consensus that his successor could draw on. It’s not a likely scenario but no more unlikely than everything else that’s been tried or touted. Bibi has won and he has changed Israel but he can’t vanish the values of Judaism, Zionism or the world. The Palestinians are entitled to a state but it will come through negotiation and recognition — or not at all. Blessed be the peacemakers, for the magicians are a curse on the land.