January 19, 2024 - 1:10pm

Yesterday, Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he had told US diplomats of his opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state after the present war in Gaza. The Israeli Prime Minister said that “in any future arrangement […] Israel needs security control over all territory west of the River Jordan. This collides with the idea of [Palestinian] sovereignty.” He added that the Americans were aware of his view, and that “the Prime Minister needs to be capable of saying no to our friends.”

This directly contradicts many of his previous public statements on the issue. In 2009, during a speech at Bar-Ilan University, Netanyahu spoke of his desire to see “two free nations side by side”; in 2013, at the same university, he outlined his acceptance of a demilitarised Palestinian state. 

In 2015, Netanyahu told the United Nations that he supported “the vision of two states for two peoples”, and in another speech to the UN the following year he claimed he had “not given up on peace” and remained “committed to a vision of peace based on two states for two peoples”. 

Both critics and supporters of Netanyahu responded sceptically to these statements — not least because, the Bar-Ilan speeches excepted, they were usually made in English to an overseas audience, and not intended to be heard or believed by his domestic political base. The Israeli Left assumed he was lying and understood that there could be no “two state solution” with Bibi as prime minister; the Right likewise saw these as meaningless words and were not worried that he actually meant what he said. Across the political spectrum, it was universally assumed that he was doing it to placate the Americans.

This adds extra significance to yesterday’s remarks: that Netanyahu is overtly stating his opposition to a Palestinian state and pointedly adding that he has informed the US of this suggests that he is no longer interested in maintaining his previous façade. 

Although it goes almost unreported in the West, for several decades now the Israeli Right has been arguing that the country should openly depart from US policy and break free from American influence — even if this means risking the $3.3 billion in military aid that Israel receives annually from the US. This feeling has broadened with the increasing importance of the settler movement to Right-wing politics in Israel, many of whom are religious fundamentalists and scriptural literalists who argue that they do not need the USA as God is on their side. 

Western analyses tend to assume that Israel and the United States are joined at the hip, or that the former is a junior partner in a broader American imperialist project. But this ignores that long-standing argument on the Israeli Right that they can afford to do without US help both militarily and economically, and that this will give them much greater latitude to act as they please in relation to the Palestinians. 

Back in 1982, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin told a young senator called Joe Biden: “Don’t threaten us with cutting off your aid. It will not work. I am not a Jew with trembling knees. I am a proud Jew with 3,700 years of civilised history.” He went on: “We will stand by our principles. We will defend them. And, when necessary, we will die for them again, with or without your aid.”  

Today, it seems as though Netanyahu is prepared to make good on the promises — or threats — of one of his predecessors as Likud leader. If he is able to follow through, it suggests a much darker future for the region and for the Palestinian people, one in which Israel operates with even fewer concerns for diplomatic pressure or international opinion, and without any worries about American opprobrium. 

Yet Netanyahu’s days are numbered. He knows he will not be re-elected again, and his overriding objective is to keep his coalition together, to avoid an election and stay in power.

Yesterday’s statement should therefore be seen in this light: more as a political overture to Right-wing coalition partners such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich than a forecast of Israeli policy over the coming years. As hopeless as it seems now, it is still possible to imagine a Palestinian state. Just not with Bibi in charge.

David Swift is a historian and author. His next book, Scouse Republic, will be published in 2025.