WASHINGTON — In a rare dovish statement for a member of the right-wing Likud party, MK Tzachi Hanegbi on Sunday defended Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution, implying that the prime minister was prepared to compromise on Jerusalem and uproot settlements if PA negotiators ceded their demand for a right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendents.
“I think we will be able to give a good answer, a win-win answer, to almost every issue, including Jerusalem, the settlements – every issue has a compromise that can be relevant to both sides,” said Hanegbi during a panel with other Israeli parliamentarians at the annual J Street Conference. “The issue of the refugees cannot be compromised. It’s either here or there.”
Asked by the moderator whether Netanyahu was indeed committed to achieving a two-state solution, Hanegbi, who is considered a longtime confidant of the prime minister, spoke to the transformations and shifts in perspective undergone by anyone elected to the Israeli premiership.
Netanyahu, he said, “has shifted through the years like every leader… that comes to sit in office in Israel… [and] understands the limitations of the original ideology that brought him there. [Yitzhak] Rabin faced it when he was prime minister, [Ehud] Barak faced it, [Shimon] Peres – they didn’t get out of Judea and Samaria; they didn’t uproot the settlements; they understood it’s a gradual process and they have to go toward their goal.”
“I think that Netanyahu is not the Netanyahu that you and I knew 20 years ago,” he added.
“What is preventing the two state solution is not Netanyahu,” Hanegbi continued, asserting that his meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the PA’s former president, Salam Fayyad, had infused him with the assurance that the Palestinians “are genuine partners, they mean what they say, and they want peace.”
The trouble, Hanegbi told the crowd of over 2,000 attendees, arose when he asked the Palestinian leaders about their demand for a right of return for members of their people’s diaspora.
The two state solution will be possible, he said, “if they will disassociate from the… dream that the refugees will flow back into Israel…. If they will understand that they have to make a historic compromise like we did, agreeing to the idea that we will not be sovereign in the places where our people were born, in the places where Jewish kings and prophets used to live centuries ago… they will have their sovereignty eventually.
“If the Palestinian leadership understand that their big historic compromise is to give up this idea of the right of return, we will be able, in a short while, to reach an agreement,” Hanegbi asserted.
Hanegbi served in a string of government positions over a decade in the cabinet as a Likud minister before joining then prime minister Ariel Sharon when Sharon left Likud to form Kadima in 2006. He later helmed the influential Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee before rejoining Likud ahead of the January 2013 Knesset elections.
At the United Nations General Assembly last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has worked intensively this year on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, said the two sides had agreed to an intensified schedule of talks, with more direct US involvement, in an effort to reach a final agreement.
“All of the issues are on the table: territory, security, refugees, Jerusalem – all of the final status issues are on the table,” Kerry said, adding that “we are not seeking an interim agreement; we are seeking a final status agreement.”
Earlier Monday, in a keynote speech to attendees of the J Street Cconference, opposition leader MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor Party) also talked up the basis for her belief in the two-state solution, to tepid applause.
“As you know it is becoming increasingly popular for critics of the peace process to talk about a binational state. But those who support a binational state are promoting a bleak scenario that contradicts the basis of Zionism,” she warned.
“The two state solution is the only viable solution for us. It is the only solution that can allow us to fulfill the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic state,” Yachimovich added.
She told the crowd that Labor would support Netanyahu “if he is serious about reaching a peace agreement.”
“If we witness meaningful steps in the peace process and some of the government’s right wing elements threaten to leave, we will act as a political safety net,” Yachimovich asserted to one of the rare bursts of applause during her discussion of the peace process. “We would even consider the possibility of joining the government.”
On Saturday night, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator in peace talks with the Palestinians, assured the conference that Israel was committed to a two-state solution and argued that a peace deal would effect fundamental change throughout the Middle East. “Yes, we can love Israel and at the same time fight for peace,” she said.