In the afternoon on 16 May, two weeks after the nine-month deadline for the end of the latest Israeli-Palestinian negotiations passed, Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg View interviewed Prime Minister Netanyahu in his Jerusalem office. They covered three major topics: the ongoing Syrian conflict, Iran’s nuclear program, and the negotiations with the Palestinians that broke down in April 2014. The interview, with a short introduction by Goldberg, was published at www.bloombergview.com on 22 May under the title “Netanyahu Says Obama Got Syria Right.”
Below are the passages in which Netanyahu offers his explanation for the failure of negotiations with the Palestinians. As noted in his own introduction, Goldberg edited his questions for length and clarity.
The peace process is in a coma. When do you go to a Plan B? How do you extract Israel from a situation that many people say is unsustainable?
There are a couple of points of consensus in Israel that are beginning to emerge. The first point of consensus is that we don’t want a binational state. Another point of consensus is that we don’t want an Iranian proxy in territories we vacate. We want a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the nation-state of the Jews. Now how do we get that? The Palestinians don’t agree to recognizing Israel as the Jewish nation-state, and it’s not clear to me that they’ll agree to elements of demilitarization that are required in any conceivable plan that works.
A lot of people in Israel, from [former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.] Michael Oren to [former head of Israeli military intelligence] Amos Yadlin, are looking at the idea of taking unilateral steps to disengage from the Palestinians.
We want a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state. How do you get that if you can’t get it through negotiations? It’s true that the idea of taking unilateral steps is gaining ground, from the center-left to the center-right. Many Israelis are asking themselves if there are certain unilateral steps that could theoretically make sense. But people also recognize that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza didn’t improve the situation or advance peace—it created Hamastan, from which thousands of rockets have been fired at our cities.
So you’re still committed to negotiations?
Let me be clear—negotiations are always preferable. But six prime ministers since Oslo have failed in their pursuit of a negotiated settlement. They’ve always thought we were on the verge of success, and then [Yasir] Arafat backed off, Mahmud Abbas backed off, because they can’t conclude these negotiations. We don’t have a Palestinian leadership that is willing to do that. The minimal set of conditions that any Israeli government would need cannot be met by the Palestinians. No matter what the spin is about blaming Israel, do we actually expect Abbas, who seems to be embracing Hamas, to give a negotiated deal? In all likelihood, no. I hope he does, but I’m not sure he’s going to do it.
So go back to this question of what to do next.
We don’t want a binational state, and we don’t want a Palestinian-Iranian state next door. There is an emerging consensus that we don’t have a partner who can challenge constituencies, do something unpopular, do something that is difficult. Abbas has not done anything to challenge the prevailing Palestinian consensus. In fact, he’s doing the opposite: the Hamas reconciliation, internationalizing the conflict, not giving one iota on the right of return, not giving an iota on the Jewish state. He wouldn’t deal with Kerry’s framework.
Do you still think that the Palestinians embrace the idea of destroying Israel in stages—by setting up a state and then using that state to continue to press their demand through violence and other means for all of Palestine?
What the Palestinians keep saying is, “Look, we want the maximum.” We will not make any adjustments in our demands. Nothing. Not tactical, not strategic. I said to them, “You tell me that you want me to draw a map of a state, but you won’t tell me that the state on the map will recognize the Jewish state next to it.” They want a map without an end of conflict.
I think Palestinian society is divided into two. The first half openly calls for Israel’s destruction. And the second half refuses to confront this and refuses to confront the demons inside their own camp.
In Israel, there is a vigorous debate about what compromise would entail. There is no such debate in the Palestinian Authority. I’m not talking about Hamas. I’m talking about the so-called moderates who will not talk about the minimal conditions that are necessary for peace from the point of view of any Israeli government and just about any Israeli. They expect us to just leave, shut our eyes, tear out the settlements. Well, been there, done that. We did it in Gaza. And what we got was not peace, but rocket fire.
What I don’t understand is why you don’t just leapfrog this negotiations morass and declare an indefinite settlement-building freeze—not tearing them out, but freezing them? That way, the onus will be on the Palestinian side, not on you, to prove that they are interested in compromise.
I don’t think it would work. Having tried once, I saw that it doesn’t work. The Americans said the only way Abbas is going to come into negotiations is either you release prisoners or freeze settlements: Choose. We chose [to release prisoners]. We made it very clear to the U.S. and to the Palestinians exactly how much we would build, including in Jerusalem. We built exactly what we said we would build in every one of the tranches. It wasn’t that we surprised anyone with extra construction.
Why continue to grow settlements at all when you’re trying to negotiate? The American critique of your position is that you keep building in ways that set back the possibility of a Palestinian state.
The settlements are an important issue, but they are not the core of the problem. This conflict has been going on for almost a century. During the first half of that century, there wasn’t a single settlement. From 1920, when this conflict effectively began, until 1967, there wasn’t a single Israeli settlement or a single Israeli soldier in the territories, and yet this conflict raged. What was that conflict about? It was about the persistent refusal to recognize a Jewish state, before it was established and after it was established.
You’ve spoken about this before as an illusion.
Just a few years ago, we were told that the Palestinian issue was the core of the conflict in the Middle East. Now you see Syria imploding, Lebanon imploding Yemen imploding, Iraq imploding, Libya imploding. Until three years ago, people believed this, and I was laughed out
of court when I mentioned this. This absurdity was widely believed. There was no challenging it.
Then there was a second illusion: that if you solved the Palestinian problem, you’ll get the Arabs to agree with you on a tougher policy on Iran. Well, that’s out the window now because they oppose Iran regardless of the Palestinian issue.
Now the last illusion remains: The core of the problem in the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the settlements. That’s about as truthful as the previous illusions. The real issue was and remains opposition to the Jewish state. That’s the demon that they have to confront, just as we’ve confronted the demon of a greater Israel. Not easy, but we did it.
A lot of people would say you haven’t done this yet, because you haven’t risked the stability of your ruling political coalition in pursuit of territorial compromise with the Palestinians.
Look at what I’ve done. I gave the speech at Bar-Ilan University, a religious university, five years ago recognizing the two-state solution. Second, I tried a ten-month [settlement] freeze, and Abbas did nothing. Then I did something that was the toughest of all—I released terrorist prisoners, killers of innocent people. That was the hardest decision.
That’s what I did to facilitate the negotiations. And what has Abbas done? Nothing. He’s refused to entertain Kerry’s efforts to try and lock horns on the core issues. He internationalized the conflict. He went to the UN organizations in express violation of Oslo and all the interim agreements. And now he’s embracing Hamas.
Why do you think that Kerry and [U.S. special envoy] Martin Indyk believe that the settlements are a great impediment to peace? Indyk in particular has denounced “rampant settlement activity" as a key factor undermining negotiations.
Most of the settlement population, between 80 to 90 percent, is clustered in three urban blocs, in suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that everyone knows will stay in a final peace settlement. Effectively, the territory that is involved has not increased. It’s marginal. It’s been marginal for the last 20 years. No new settlements have been built since the time I was first prime minister, which was 1996.
What you are talking about is an increasing population within these urban blocs. It doesn’t materially affect the map. If you took an aerial photograph to see how much territory has been “consumed” by so-called “rampant” settlement activity, the answer is practically nothing. If you can make a deal, you can make a deal. The addition of a few hundred housing units a year in this territory doesn’t alter it. Successive Israeli governments have offered deals and couldn’t get them because the Palestinians would not lock horns with the primary obstacle to peace, which is the refusal to end the conflict with Israel once and for all. To recognize that the Jewish people have the right to self-determination, just as the Palestinian people do. My insistence on recognition of the Jewish state is not a tactical PR stunt. It goes to the core of the conflict.
There are people in Washington who think that John Kerry is borderline delusional for pursuing negotiations so hard.
Kerry made a big effort. We made a huge effort together. I think he tried very hard. It’s a tough go.
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