After meeting Trump team, Bennett sees opportunity to change two-state paradigm
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After meeting Trump team, Bennett sees opportunity to change two-state paradigm

At Jerusalem Post conference, cabinet ministers spar over how to approach incoming White House; US envoy speaks of urgency to ‘arrest the slide toward a binational reality’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Minister of Education Naftali Bennett speaks at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, held at Waldorf Astoria hotel in Jerusalem. November 23, 2016.  (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Minister of Education Naftali Bennett speaks at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, held at Waldorf Astoria hotel in Jerusalem. November 23, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The incoming US administration is amenable to considering alternatives to a two-state solution, Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Wednesday, urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to formulate alternative ideas and convince President-elect Donald Trump to adopt them in the coming weeks.

“I am under an impression of profound openness to hear what we want for ourselves,” Bennett said a day after he returned from New York, where he met with people working for Trump. “Israel is put in a unique position to say what it wants. Do we want to establish a second Palestinian state — besides the Palestinian state in Gaza — that inevitably would become a failed and hostile Muslim state? Or try something new?”

Addressing the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in the capital, the minister, who heads the nationalist Jewish Home party, indicated that the new US administration would not pressure Israel over the Palestinian issue as much as the outgoing one did. Jerusalem is like a child coming of age and finally being allowed to determine its own destiny, he said. “It’s ours to decide.”

The traditional two-state paradigm has been tried and has failed, Bennett continued. “Yes, I know there’s world consensus that that’s the right plan. But that doesn’t mean it is the right plan.”

After he learned of Bennett’s meetings with Trump aides, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed his ministers and deputy ministers not to contact members of the incoming administration, except through his office or the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

“No American administration is going to be more hawkish than Israel is,” Bennett said. “So, we only have one chance, and it’s going to happen in the next few weeks. Do we go down the good old failed path, or finally do we try something new?”

Along the same lines, Bennett noted that in 1948, US president Harry Truman decided to recognize the nascent State of Israel minutes after it had been declared, against the profound opposition of the State Department. “I hope that the new administration will show the same courage of being the very first nation that recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s united capital,” he said.

Bennett acknowledged that there is “no perfect solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and stopped short of repeating his call for a partial annexation of the West Bank. Rather, he suggested Jerusalem try to “manage” the conflict, among other things by granting the Palestinians “autonomy on steroids,” including full freedom of movement across Israel and the West Bank.

In a clear reference to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who argued last week that Israel should reach an understanding with the Trump administration that would allow Israel to build inside the settlement blocs in return for a freeze outside the blocs, Bennett chastised cabinet members who volunteer concessions. “This loose chatter is hurting Israel’s national security,” Bennett said, without naming Liberman. “And I tell them: hold your horses.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in Tel Aviv, November 3, 2016. (Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. (Flash90)

Liberman, who had addressed the conference earlier, said that he was merely trying to give an example of how Washington and Jerusalem developed understandings in the past.

“We really need to wait,” Liberman said with regards to what Israel should tell the incoming administration. During the last eight years, under President Barack Obama, Israel did not build much in the West Bank and East Jerusalem due to a “failure to create a common policy with US,” the defense minister said.

“Today it’s crucial not to create slogans, not to create news, but to give enough time to the new administration to create with us a new approach to this dispute with the Palestinians over Judea and Samaria,” he said.

Liberman said he does not expect Obama to back a Palestine-related resolution at the United Nations Security Council or initiate other diplomatic moves that could damage Israel. “It is clear we are in a transition period, it is clear today — not only in Israel but in the world — we are waiting for new policies, a new administration,” he said.

The US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, reiterated the White House’s commitment to the two-state solution, but did not directly address Israeli fears over diplomatic moves Obama could make seeking to cement his legacy on the peace process.

Washington remains “committed to advancing the goal of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including a negotiated two-states-for-two-peoples solution to end Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has been our shared priority for decades,” he said.

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference in Jerusalem, November 23, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference in Jerusalem, November 23, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The status quo is “not sustainable,” Shapiro went on, “so there is urgency in finding ways to arrest the slide toward a binational reality, which threatens Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and help the parties find their way back to the path of negotiations toward a two-state solution to end the conflict.”

In light of the feud among Israeli ministers over how best to approach the Trump administration, Shapiro acknowledged that “in the midst of a political transition, it is understandable that emotions are strong and the air is filled with anticipation.”

But he said was confident that close bilateral ties — including Washington’s “leadership role in peacemaking” — would continue to define the relationship “for many years to come.”

Netanyahu, in his 22-minute address to the conference, did not mention his ministers’ overtures to the incoming US administration. Rather, he spoke of his vision of Israel becoming a technology powerhouse sought after by the nations of the world, a process he argued made peace with the Palestinians more likely.

“I am supremely optimistic,” he declared. “In fact, I have never been more hopeful. I am hopeful about Israel. I am hopeful about our region. I am hopeful about peace.”

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, November 23, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, November 23, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel’s relations with the Arab world are “rapidly changing,” the prime minister said, adding that more countries and people in the region no longer consider Israel an enemy but “an indispensable ally in our common battle against radical Islam.”

This change can be witnessed “not necessarily in formal government statements” but in blogs coming out of Arabic-speaking countries, Netanyahu said. “You see sparks of change.”

Previously it was thought that peace with the Palestinians would lead to an rapprochement with the Arab world, but now it seems more likely for the opposite to happen, Netanyahu said.

But Hazem Khairat, Egypt’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, said it was the other way around. Cairo, he said, remains committed to the peace with Israel, saying that 40 years ago, “probably very few people could have imagined the resilience” of the 1979 treaty.

Yet for those Israelis who wonder why the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement “has not reached all the people on the street level in Egypt,” Khairat said, “my answer to them is that our peace would certainly be warmer and could reach far more people if we could solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a just and comprehensive peace. A viable two-state solution is the only way that this conflict could be brought to an end is still available and possible.”

Palestinian statehood “remains one of the most pressing regional issues and must be prioritized,” he insisted.

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