The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Netanyahu sees from the river to the sea

6 min

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Israel’s embattled leader has long opposed the emergence of an independent Palestine. For years, right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advocated against statehood for millions of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation, worked to undermine the Palestinian national movement as it splintered between Islamist militant faction Hamas in Gaza and the feeble leadership of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and allied with a far-right Jewish settler movement that has systematically made a future Palestinian state more inviable.

Now, as Israel wages its punishing war against Hamas in Gaza, Netanyahu has faced renewed international calls to help resurrect the two-state solution: The vision of a pair of territorially distinct states, one for Israelis and one for Palestinians, that’s widely embraced by the international community, including the United States.

Arab governments indicated that they would only invest in rebuilding and stabilizing Gaza after the war — which has seen more than 25,000 Palestinians killed and much of the territory flattened — if Israel engages in a meaningful political process with the Palestinians. The White House, too, at least pays lip service to the “aspirations of the Palestinian people” and wants postwar Gaza to be administered by the Palestinian Authority as part of a broader rapprochement that revives the prospect of a two-state solution and further integrates Israel into its Arab neighborhood.

In private, senior Biden officials have pushed this plan to Israeli and Arab counterparts. On a Friday phone call with Netanyahu, President Biden reportedly floated the idea of a two-state solution where Israel’s security would be “guaranteed” — a recognition of Netanyahu’s long-standing suspicion of the threat any independent Palestinian entity poses to Israel. When asked by a reporter on Friday whether the two-state solution was an impossibility under Netanyahu’s watch, Biden replied, “No, it’s not.”

Deep divisions emerge in Israeli government over Gaza war strategy

It didn’t take Netanyahu long to contradict Biden. “I will not compromise on full Israeli security control over the entire area west of [the river] Jordan — and this is irreconcilable with a Palestinian state,” he wrote on social media Saturday, nipping Biden’s hopeful talk in the bud.

In a statement in Hebrew the next day, Netanyahu pointed to his track record of thwarting the two-state solution. “My insistence is what has prevented — over the years — the establishment of a Palestinian state that would have constituted an existential danger to Israel,” he said. “As long as I am prime minister, I will continue to strongly insist on this.”

On Thursday, before speaking with Biden, Netanyahu had already laid out his rejection of the White House’s efforts. “For 30 years, I have been very consistent, and I’m saying something very simple,” he said at a news conference, arguing that any sovereign Palestinian entity was an unacceptable security threat to Israel. “This conflict is not about the lack of a state, a Palestinian state, but about the existence of a state, a Jewish state.”

Netanyahu was joined on social media by a chorus of parliamentarians in his right-wing coalition, who all echoed his rejection of Palestinian statehood in the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attack. “I say clearly to everyone who is still stuck on October 6th: we will never allow the establishment of a Palestinian state,” tweeted Miki Zohar, Israel’s minister of culture and sport. “This is our commitment to the murdered martyrs and fallen heroes.”

The Israeli right undermines Biden’s Middle East agenda

The phrase “from the river to the sea” has sparked controversy in both Israel and the United States, where pro-Palestinian protesters have invoked the slogan in demands for freedom and rights for Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Many Israelis equate these demands to calls for the erasure of the Israeli state, citing Hamas’s own past rhetoric. U.S. House lawmakers pushed legislation deeming the slogan “antisemitic.”

But Netanyahu and his ruling Likud party have their own fixed vision of what should exist between the river and the sea — Likud’s original party platform insists that “between the Sea and the Jordan there will be only Israeli sovereignty.” And the reality cemented under successive Netanyahu governments is one of Jewish supremacy and Israeli control over a large population of Palestinians whose lives are circumscribed by Israel’s security imperatives.

It’s a scenario a growing body of international officials find untenable. “The refusal to accept the two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, and the denial of the right to statehood for the Palestinian people, are unacceptable,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said over the weekend. “The right of the Palestinian people to build their own state must be recognized by all.”

According to the Financial Times, E.U. officials circulated a document ahead of a Monday meeting of foreign ministers calling on the bloc to think through potential steps if Netanyahu’s government maintains its stance on Palestinian statehood. “Brussels proposed that EU member states should ‘set out the consequences they envisage to attach to engagement or non-engagement’ with their proposed peace plan,” noted the FT.

Israeli calls for Gaza’s ethnic cleansing are only getting louder

Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival, amid fresh protests calling for his resignation. Many Israelis are critical of his fractious handling of the country before the Oct. 7 attack and resent his diffident treatment of the families of hostages held in Gaza.

“Politically, [Netanyahu] sold himself as Mr. Security, but that was obliterated on October 7th,” a leading conservative in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, told the New Yorker’s David Remnick. “Now he is Mr. Standing Up to America Who Will Impose on Us a Palestinian State. He is pivoting. After his grand failure, he needs a new story. He is going to try to sell the story that the security establishment failed, not him, and he is the only one to kill a Palestinian state.”

A canny operator, Netanyahu may yet see a path to clinging on to power, keeping the war rumbling while awaiting the potential return of his friend, former president Donald Trump, to office and a change in the political dispensation in Washington. As it is, critics of the Biden administration from the left believe the White House is complicit in the staggering devastation of Gaza and too weak to check Netanyahu’s uncompromising, hard-right agenda.

The United States should “take at face value [Netanyahu’s] government’s categorical rejection of Palestinian statehood and its written coalition guidelines that assert ‘the Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel,’” wrote Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator. “Washington should instead challenge Israel to set out a proposal for how all those living under its control will be guaranteed equality, enfranchisement and other civil rights.”