When Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman said Sunday that the two-state solution would remain the government’s blueprint to solve the conflict with the Palestinians, it seemed that he positioned himself to the left of many senior Likud lawmakers, who last week declared their steadfast opposition to a Palestinian state.
But Liberman’s vision of a “two-state solution” is a far cry from the more common understanding of the term.
According to Israel’s center-left camp — and virtually the entire international community — the preferred solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in the creation a Palestinian state in borders based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps. According to this plan, any territorial exchanges, regardless of how large or small, are designed to enable Israel to keep the major settlement blocs in the West Bank.
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud head, has remained exceptionally vague about his vision for a final-status agreement — saying only that a future Palestinian state will have to be demilitarized and recognize Israel as a Jewish state — Liberman has never made a secret that he favors a “population exchange” leading to “maximal separation.”
So what do the two leaders, who are running on a joint slate in the January 22 elections, really mean when they speak of two states for two peoples?
Netanyahu’s stance remains the subject of much debate. Last week, some senior Likud MKs caused an uproar when they stated that the party does not support a two-state solution, despite a speech Netanyahu made in 2009 at Bar-Ilan University during which he in principle agreed to a demilitarized Palestinian state, if the Palestinians recognized Israel as a Jewish state.
Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who is No. 3 on the Likud-Beytenu joint list, said “two states for two peoples was never part of [Likud's] election platform.” MK Tzipi Hotovely, No. 15 on the list, said the Bar-Ilan speech was a tactical maneuver by Netanyahu only meant to placate the world.
“Even when the prime minister spoke about the issue of two states, he didn’t speak about a state in the full sense. He spoke about a long list of conditions that he himself says have no chance of being fulfilled in the near future due to the actions of the other side,” MK Yariv Levin told The Times of Israel.
After moderates such as Dan Meridor were not elected to realistic slots on the Likud’s Knesset list for the upcoming elections and saw their places taken by nationalist hardliners, the majority — if not all — of future Likud MKs openly reject a Palestinian state.
Faced with a debate about Netanyahu’s true position, and in the absence of a party platform for the elections, a Likud spokesman said the prime minister still supported a two-state solution, if Israel’s conditions were met and its security guaranteed.
Netanyahu used to staunchly oppose a Palestinian state but ostensibly changed his mind (at least officially) after intense international pressure. Yet he seems in no hurry to accept it in practice, as evidenced by his fierce opposition to the United Nations’ recent upgrade of Palestine to an nonmember observer state and his determination to expand some Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The “diplomatic process must be managed responsibly and sagaciously and not in undue haste,” he said Tuesday.
Whether or not Netanyahu really intends to ever agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state, his government’s official benchmark remains the Bar-Ilan speech, during which he declared unequivocally: “If we receive this guarantee regarding demilitarization and Israel’s security needs, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the State of the Jewish people, then we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.”
Netanyahu has restated this position several times over the years. In April, he told CNN that he doesn’t want to govern the Palestinians or accept them as subjects or citizens of Israel. “I want them to have their own independent state. But a demilitarized state.” In September, Netanyahu told the United Nations General Assembly that it was incumbent on the two sides to “reach a mutual compromise, in which a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the one and only Jewish State.”
By insisting on the Palestinians’ recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people — a demand no current Palestinian leader is likely to meet — Netanyahu created a situation in which he can tell world leaders that he is in principle willing to accept Palestinian independence, without fearing that he will have to sign a final-status agreement in the foreseeable future.
Liberman, on the other hand, truly believes in a two-state solution. In contrast to the Likud hawks, he doesn’t oppose a Palestinian state — but his plan includes “land swaps” much more drastic than what most people have in mind when they use these terms.
So when he says, as he did on Israel Radio on Sunday, that Israel does not have “imperialistic ambitions,” that the government is ready to take “important diplomatic steps” when there is a suitable partner on the other side, and that the Bar-Ilan speech would serve as basis for any future coalition agreement, it might sound to some surprisingly conciliatory. But Liberman’s true vision of a final-status agreement remains controversial.
In 2006, Liberman told the American ambassador — as revealed by WikiLeaks — that states composed of different “nations” continue to experience conflict. Therefore, his proposal of Arab-Israeli peace includes a creative re-imagining of borders. According to his plan, a Palestinian entity would be created and include major Israeli-Arab population centers, such as the city of Umm el-Fahm, and the state of Israel would include Jewish settlement blocs near the Green Line.
On September 28, 2010, then-foreign minister Liberman presented his idea to the entire world: “Let me be very clear: I am not speaking about moving populations, but rather about moving borders to better reflect demographic realities,” Liberman told the United Nations General Assembly. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Liberman said from the podium in New York, “this is not an extraordinary insight, and is far less controversial than some may seek to claim.”
As other ethnic conflicts have shown in the past, it is often a “mismatch between borders and nationalities” that breeds conflict, Liberman posited. “Leading scholars and highly respected research institutions have even coined the term ‘Right-sizing the State’ to capture the idea that states and nations must be in balance in order to ensure peace. This is not a controversial political policy. It is an empirical truth.”
Immediately after Liberman’s speech — which unsurprisingly caused an international uproar — Netanyahu distanced himself from his foreign minister’s stance, with his aides stating that the “various issues of the peace deal will be discussed and determined only at the negotiating table and nowhere else.”
But Liberman has never disavowed his controversial plan. Yisrael Beytenu’s 2009 election platform stated that that “any solution must include maximal separation between the two nations.” In 2013, the party is running on a joint slate with Likud, and so far no official program has been released. But a party spokesman confirmed on Sunday that while Liberman doesn’t believe a peace agreement is attainable in the foreseeable future, he still believes in the principle of “population exchange.”
On Sunday, Liberman endorsed Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech. But presently it doesn’t seem like either leader is eager to implement a two-state solution — any kind of two-state solution — in the near future.