Benjamin Netanyahu has won his fifth term as Israel’s prime minister, and this summer he will surpass its founder, David Ben-Gurion, as its longest-serving chief of state. For some time, he has tried to represent himself as the country’s indispensable man. For someone who has never seemed particularly popular and has been actively despised by some and whose tenure has been dogged by various scandals that will follow him into his new term, it has been a remarkable run and, I suppose one must say, an extraordinary political achievement.
Netanyahu’s claim to power is that he is a realist. Some countries can afford a dollop of policy that speaks to matters of common values abroad; for example, human rights and the promotion of democracy. These are generally honored in the breach rather than the observance—the United States would be Exhibit A in that category—but Israel can afford no such luxury. With the exception of the U.S., it has no ally in the world and has been regularly reviled by international bodies that question its right to exist. It is surrounded by regional enemies that, for most of its existence, have called for its destruction, and three times—in 1948, 196, and 1973—have seriously attempted it. It lies within easy striking distance of a power 10 times its size, Iran, that continues to vow it doom. No other nation in the world has lived in such a climate of hostility and threat. One would have to go back to the Dutch Republic of the 16th and 17th centuries, whose destruction was pursued for nearly a century by the Spanish Empire and France, to find a comparable example. However, the Dutch state did not come into existence after a genocide that had destroyed a third of its founding population.
In consequence, Israel has often found its friends in unsavory places, such as apartheid South Africa. Today, it has forged an unofficial alliance of convenience against Iran with two of the world’s more repellent dictatorships, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It is certainly to Israel’s credit that it has maintained a democratic form of government of its own and that it holds its officials and its military relatively accountable for their conduct—more accountable, by present standards, than we do ours. But Israel has long maintained a policy of “no comment” on the affairs of other states. People who live in the particular glass house that is Israel do not throw diplomatic stones. At the same time, it reserves itself the right to take whatever steps in deems necessary to protect its own security.
Israel’s most intransigent problem is what is delicately referred to as the Palestinian question. For more than eighty years, attempts have been made to divide the sliver of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River—about the size of Maryland—between its Jewish and Palestinian communities. These attempts have all failed, but the proposed solution remains the same: two independent states, roughly based on the pre-1967 borders of the State of Israel, with practical adjustments and guarantees for security. However, this solution has come to seem less and less viable to many on both sides, and Netanyahu has declared it dead for all intents and purposes. What he hasn’t done, at least until now, is state what the alternative might be.
The closeness of his most recent race impelled him to make such a statement. In the closing days of the campaign, he told a television interviewer that he would not only annex Israeli settlement blocs in the territory still notionally reserved for a future Palestinian state, but also any future settlements there. In effect, he placed a lien on the whole of the territory between Israel’s current border and the West Bank of the Jordan River, where most of a future Palestinian state would be and where 2.8 million Palestinians currently live. Up to this point, Israel has referred to this territory as “disputed”—that is, without legally recognized resolution. With Netanyahu’s new statement, he has declared the piecemeal annexation of the West Bank as national policy, based only on the pace of future settlement.
Some commentators have suggested that Netanyahu has left himself enough room to slow-walk such settlements, which have placed some 400,000 settlers in the West Bank since the 1970s, into the indefinite future. But his statement will greatly increase pressure from settlement advocates to push his government and its attendant judiciary for new sites. And such advocates have made their view clear: that the entirety of the West Bank belongs to modern Israel by historic right. In effect, Netanyahu has aligned himself with this view, not to say embraced it.
Where does that leave the Palestinians of the West Bank? The Israeli Right has spoken vaguely of Palestinian “autonomy” within a shrinking domain, but the logical outcome of the process Netanyahu has just blessed can only be the creation of a single state that, if it is to remain under Jewish control, must either incorporate the West Bank Palestinians as a politically subordinate entity or compel their emigration. That is simply a formula for an apartheid state, and for new war.
Netanyahu would never have made his pronouncement, and certainly not in a television interview, had he not been able to rely on the support of Donald Trump. But Trump, as Netanyahu well knows, won’t be around forever, and no future American administration is likely to indulge a policy that will risk a new war in the Middle East.
What is the actual policy alternative? It is the one that Netanyahu had been pursuing until political desperation, including fears of personal indictment, led him to make his 11th hour appeal to the nationalist Far Right. Settlement approval had been a slow process. The Palestinian Authority, which continues to govern the day-to-day activity of West Bank Palestinians, would pursue its own interest, which was survival on whatever ground it might be left with. The status quo, in short, would be propped up as long as possible. Unsustainable in the long run, it was working well for Israel in the present, and Netanyahu, keeping the most extreme settler demands at bay, was administering it with some dexterity. By capitulating to those demands, he raises pressure now for a stampede. He has won his election. What place he will be left with in history is quite another matter.