Netanyahu's western backers let him play them for fools

They indulged the Israeli leader hoping – wrongly, as it turns out – that he would agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a map of Israel that includes all of the West Bank and Gaza during his UN address in 2022. AFP
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Embarrassment. Dismay. Mortification. Fury. I hope these are some of the emotions being experienced by the western leaders who have given Israel such unequivocal support in its campaign in Gaza after the horrific attacks of October 7. They could not let up, no, not one bit, from standing by “the only democracy in the Middle East” as it fights on behalf of the “free world … to save western civilisation”, as Israeli President Isaac Herzog has put it.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just made crystal clear that for months he has been taking those leaders for the ride of their lives.

Forget about planning for the day after, involving the Palestinian Authority, or forging an international coalition that can help build an independent Palestine after the war ends. Mr Netanyahu doesn’t want a two-state solution at all. Ever. And this time he has made it as plain as could be.

After speaking with US President Joe Biden last Friday, Mr Netanyahu’s office issued a statement on Saturday: “In his conversation with President Biden, Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated his policy that after Hamas is destroyed Israel must retain security control over Gaza to ensure that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel, a requirement that contradicts the demand for Palestinian sovereignty.”

For those who needed any clarification, Mr Netanyahu doubled down with a statement on X. “I will not compromise on full Israeli security control over all the territory west of the Jordan River – and this is irreconcilable with a Palestinian state.”

This is also contrary to the position taken by the staunchest of Mr Netanyahu’s defenders, such as UK Labour leader Keir Starmer. The Israeli leader’s statement was “unacceptable and wrong”, Mr Starmer said. “Palestinian statehood is not in the gift of a neighbour. It is the inalienable right of the Palestinian people.”

Shapps described Netanyahu’s opposition to a Palestinian state as 'disappointing'. The word is inadequate. When I order a steak rare and it comes medium, that is disappointing

But for all the indignation displayed by Mr Starmer and his ilk, they shouldn’t have been surprised. Mr Netanyahu has never hidden his opposition to a two-state solution. At a news conference in Tel Aviv last month, he said: “You and your journalist friends have been blaming me for almost 30 years for putting the brakes on the Oslo Accords and preventing the Palestinian state. That is true.

“I’m proud that I prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state because today everybody understands what that Palestine state could have been, now that we’ve seen the little Palestinian state in Gaza.”

Last September, he held up a map of “the New Middle East” at the UN General Assembly in which “Israel” included all of the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, as far back as 1977 he was talking openly of his belief that Israel should just take the Palestinians’ land.

The historian and newspaper editor Max Hastings was writing a biography of Mr Netanyahu’s brother Yoni, a hero of the 1976 Entebbe raid, and recorded the future premier saying: “In the next war if we do it right, we’ll have a chance to get all the Arabs out. We can clear the West Bank, sort out Jerusalem.”

But Mr Netanyahu’s western backers chose to ignore all this, just as they ignored statements made by Israeli officials that are carefully detailed in South Africa’s case on genocide at the International Court of Justice. They repeated ad nauseam that Israel had the right to defend itself – which of course it does – but while troubled by the escalating death toll, could never quite bring themselves to call for a ceasefire.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in November that “too many Palestinians have been killed”, and early this month added that “there’s been far too much loss of life” – still doing nothing to put an end to it. (I wish someone would ask him what the right amount of “loss of life” would be. What would be the “Goldilocks” figure, neither too small nor too high, that the Biden administration would approve as appropriate vengeance, never mind that the majority of the dead would be women and children?)

For underlying it all was the assumption that the Israeli leadership would come round in the end. Mr Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak were insistent: there had to be a two-state solution.

Well, Mr Netanyahu has just defied the US and all his supporters who laboured under that illusion. Only now is there some pushback, although the US Senate recently rejected a measure that would have made military aid to Israel conditional on it upholding human rights and international accords.

Now the man they have been supporting is unambiguously in view – a man who would like to solve the Palestinian problem by erasing Palestine. This is his aim: no two state-solution, no state of Palestine, and quite possibly no Palestinians in their historic lands either; and it is for this that the cheerleaders of Mr Netanyahu’s government have allowed it to visit death on 25,000 in Gaza and biblical scenes of destruction on the Strip.

UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps described Mr Netanyahu’s implacable opposition to a Palestinian state as “disappointing”. The word is utterly inadequate. When I order a steak rare and it comes medium, that is disappointing. The adjective Mr Shapps is reaching for is “catastrophic”.

All along, the US, UK and others have refused to step in and stop the killing on the grounds that they had to let Mr Netanyahu and his allies do what they wanted because, ultimately, they would be amenable to a reasonable solution, namely two states. Remember when we were told, by White House officials, that it would be “repugnant” and “disgraceful” to call for a ceasefire?

And all along, they have been played for fools by a man who cannot be described as concealing his true intentions – as they have always been in plain sight, for those with eyes to see.

Published: January 24, 2024, 4:00 AM