An improbable partner for peace? Netanyahu, Likud and Revisionist Zionism

With Netanyahu in charge, prospects for a two-state solution look increasingly slim. His historic record, the composition of his latest government and the growing scepticism among the Palestinians towards the process all suggest that progress is unlikely while he is in power.


The conflict has recently been heating up, with violence growing in Temple Mount and in the old city in Jerusalem. These tensions show no sign of easing, as the position adopted by Netanyahu’s Likud party appears contrary to any realistic peace deal. Equally, Palestinian support for a two-state solution is diminishing. A recent poll conducted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy suggested that only 27.9% support such a notion, with two-thirds seeing the restoration of historic Palestine as Palestine’s ultimate national goal.


During the election campaign Netanyahu was able to argue that, in an increasingly unstable region with potential threats from ISIS and Assad, Likud’s brand of security was the safest option. He therefore sold himself as a strong leader who wouldn’t cave in to pressure from the international community. However, although much of his argument was based on the current instability in the region, in an appeal to his traditional support base he pledged that he would not allow a Palestinian state under his leadership. Unsurprisingly despite efforts to downplay the significance of this statement since, many argue that he had had finally revealed his underlying position.


Until then, Netanyahu has always had to tread a fine line between the competing Revisionist Zionist aspirations of his party and the American vision of a two-state solution. In contrast to the Labor party, Likud’s ideology has its roots in Revisionist Zionism which argues for a militaristic approach to security while emphasising the need to create an Israeli state based on Eretz Israel, or Greater Israel. This expansionary tenet has consistently led the international community to question Likud’s claim that they are willing to accept a territorial compromise in order to agree a lasting peace. Despite the opposition of his party, Netanyahu has had to maintain a notional commitment to the peace process in order to maintain US support.


Despite this notional commitment, a two-state solution has always looked unlikely under Netanyahu. During his first premiership he arguably engineered the collapse of the Oslo Accords by using security concerns to justify maintaining a long-term military presence along the Jordan River. This effectively denied the Palestinians territorial sovereignty and thus ruled out the prospect of a state independent of Israeli influence. Subsequently, in the Hebron protocol he successfully manipulated the process such that Israel alone could define whether Palestine was living up to its obligations as prescribed in the Oslo Accords. Even if Palestine was meeting its requirements, Netanyahu could claim otherwise and bring the process down.


This is exactly what he later did in the Wye River memorandum in 1998. Wye River was intended to bring about the territorial withdrawals from the West Bank defined in Oslo II and the Hebron Protocol. However, Netanyahu’s Likud administration deemed that the Palestinian Authority efforts to combat terrorism were insufficient. As such, he used ‘security concerns’ to justify reneging on Israel’s withdrawal obligations and thereby signalled the demise of the Oslo peace process. Indeed, in his book A Durable Peace, Netanyahu admitted, “my principle objective at Wye was to limit the extent of further interim Israeli withdrawals so as to leave Israel with sufficient territorial depth for its defence.”


During his first administration, progress with the peace process was further hampered by his drastic expansion of settlements to a point where they were growing at three times the total Israeli rate. In authorising this expansion, he was effectively addressing his party’s concern at what they saw to be concessions at Hebron by appeasing Likud’s desire for a Greater Israel. At the time, he couldn’t make clear that he had no plans to make any genuine concession to the US.


A similar pattern has continued into his second and third administrations. Settlement expansion has increased and two wars in Gaza have further antagonised the Palestinians. At both the Mitchell and Kerry lead peace negotiations, Netanyahu carefully managed the situation by offering conditions for peace that the Palestinians could not accept. In particular, he demanded that Palestine accept that Israel is a Jewish state and that the Palestinian refugee issue is settled outside Israel’s borders. Knowing the proposals would be rejected, he could seem to be engaged in the peace process while giving nothing away.


Looking at Likud’s coalition partners, it appears that Netanyahu’s recent re-election means that Israel has effectively abandoned the peace process. It is clear that none of them would support a peace deal that involved withdrawing from the occupied territories. The Jewish Home party is a Zionist national religious party whose mandate is essentially supporting pro-settler. The Shas party, while non-Zionist, has similar objectives to Likud. They both support and protect the status of settlers. Likud had also always shown a commitment to the expansion of Jerusalem, which was important for Shas voters as many had settled there for spiritual, rather than Zionist or nationalistic reasons. Similarly United Torah Judaism party will give nothing away as its Ultra-Orthodox followers primarily advocate protecting the status of Jews who have settled around Jerusalem.


The only coalition partner who might be willing to accept a peace deal is Kulanu, who oppose settlement growth outside the major settlements. However their 10 seats wield little influence when compared to the other coalition partners. Arguably Netanyahu has co-opted them into his coalition to make it appear broad, as he did when Labor was included in his ruling coalition in the last administration.


However, all of this highlights the obvious. Netanyahu was playing on the fears of his electorate in branding himself as the only secure option for Israel. However, many of the threats facing Israel today were not around during his first and for some of his second administrations. Despite this he still pursued a line designed to stall the peace process. With the advent of new and more dangerous threats, Netanyahu has essentially used the resultant fears to justify his insistence on security, which has always run contrary to Palestinian sovereignty and to a realistic peace deal.


By choosing coalition partners who are opposed to the peace process, by expanding settlements, by making unrealistic demands of the Palestinians and by using security as a justification for refusing to make territorial concessions, his governments have made peace more difficult to achieve. Equally the change in Palestinian opinion reflects growing impatience and the belief that Israel under Netanyahu is not committed to peace. Perhaps the only prospect of a peace deal would be if a coalition of the left comes to power at the next election. Labor have consistently shown an appetite for peace, however in their absence the facts on the ground and growing animosity between the sides have made a future peace deal difficult if not impossible.