Benjamin Netanyahu’s evasion of the question of whether or not he supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the main reasons his coalition government will not include Kadima, the centrist party Tzipi Livni heads, or any left-of-center party.
Netanyahu favors first creating the conditions necessary for peace, strengthening the Palestinian economy and Palestinian institutions. After that — who knows? Bibi steadfastly has refused to say where, exactly, the process will lead.
So when Zalman Shoval, a foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu and a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, addressed the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York on Thursday, I put the question to him simply and directly, and asked him for a simple and direct answer in return: Does Mr. Netanyahu favor the eventual creation of a Palestinian state?
Shoval’s response: Um… we’ll get back to you on that.
"We’re not going to rule out anything at this stage, but we’re certainly not going to determine anything at this stage," Shoval said. "We think it would be foolhardy today to agree to a set formula. There’s no justification for a rush into a solution."
Except, perhaps, the prevention of more bloodshed on both sides.
Netanyahu has been careful to leave his options open. While he is on record against a Palestinian state — he fought the idea when his predecessor at the helm of Likud, Ariel Sharon, backed the notion in 2002, and when Sharon announced his plan to unilaterally withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu resigned from the government in protest in 2005 (Bibi was finance minister at the time) — Netanyahu has been more cautious in the last couple of years.
He and his representatives often try to deflect the issue, depending on the audience.
Shoval told me: "The Netanyahu government does not see itself as a government which would lord over the Palestinians."
Think that means yes to a Palestinian state? Thing again.
"I want to state our position very clearly," Shoval said Thursday. "The two-state solution has become a mantra."
"As far as we are concerned," he said, "it’s a formula that has to be judged by its practicability, and not ideology for or against."
"Netanyahu’s approach to the Palestinians is pragmatic."
But what is it, exactly? To help build Palestinian institutions, "not instead of political negotiations, but as a conduit or corridor for political negotiations," Shoval said.
And then what?
Shoval and Netanyahu’s formulations leave the door open for any number of options, including transforming Jordan into the Palestinian state — something many of Netanyahu’s supporters favor — or giving the Palestinians limited control over their own affairs and calling it a day. The latter option seems more and more along the lines of what Netanyahu is thinking.
That idea once was the prevailing approach in Jerusalem — in 1985.
But it’s 2009, and the Americans, Israel’s last three prime ministers and the majority of the Israeli public support the idea of a Palestinian state; indeed, many argue that it’s the only way to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy. This, to say nothing of the Palestinians themselves, who will accept nothing less than full statehood. Is Netanyahu trying to turn back the clock?
Shoval argued in his presentation that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, appear to agree with Netanyahu’s approach of strengthening Palestinian institutions as a conduit for negotiations. He took pains to note that Mitchell did not bring up the two-state solution in his meetings with Netanyahu during his recent trip to the region.
Is Shoval trying to suggest that the Americans don’t really favor a two-state solution?
As on many other topics — such as Israeli-Syria negotiations — the burden is on Netanyahu to make his positions clear. So long as he refrains from doing so, his detractors will assume the worst.