Coinciding with the resumption of peace talks this week, the Israeli Cabinet’s decision to approve more than 1,000 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem calls into question the Netanyahu government’s commitment to negotiations. For Palestinian negotiators, a halt on settlement construction is necessary for the advancement of peace talks. For right-wing ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet, however, a settlement freeze is an unthinkable concession that abandons a core national interest. Economy and Commerce Minister Naftali Bennett declared that his Jewish Home party would “not be part of a government that freezes construction in our country,” while Likud minister Danny Danon supports annexing significant parts of the West Bank. Both staunchly oppose a two-state solution.
If peace talks do advance, the Israeli Knesset’s pro-settlement faction could play the role of spoiler, forcing Netanyahu to pay a steep political price for halting settlement construction. Significant progress in negotiations will, therefore, require Netanyahu to break with the pro-settlement right—a group with which he has closely governed as prime minister. But will Bibi Netanyahu—the longtime opponent of Palestinian statehood who only four years ago publicly accepted the premise of a two-state solution—confront his coalition allies on settlements?
Netanyahu’s recent record affords little optimism. A signature policy priority, settlement expansion has heavily shaped the legacy of Netanyahu’s premiership. Since his election as prime minister in 2009, Netanyahu has presided over the most rapid period of West Bank settlement growth in Israel’s history. In the West Bank, the Jewish population has expanded by 18 percent—doubling the growth rate of Israel proper—and Israeli government spending in these areas has skyrocketed by 38 percent under Netanyahu’s leadership. Moreover, the Netanyahu government has incentivized settler activity by providing generous housing subsidies as well as legalizing “outposts” that many deem illegal according to international law.These facts cast serious doubt on Netanyahu’s willingness to make vital concessions on settlements. Yet, his personal efforts to garner support for the renewal of negotiations suggest he is serious about the current peace process. Indeed, he spent considerable political capital in convincing skeptical members of his cabinet—and the Israeli public—to support the phased release of 104 Palestinian prisoners as a confidence-building measure ahead of talks.
Why would Netanyahu embrace peace talks, if not to reach a comprehensive peace agreement centered on a two-state solution? Skeptics argue that Netanyahu’s rhetorical support for a peace agreement is tactical, intended to advance the more nefarious goals of solidifying Israel’s territorial claims through settlement expansion or launching a war with Iran. Peace talks would indeed provide useful cover for these endeavors—but this cynicism overlooks important rhetorical shifts in the prime minister’s position on negotiations.
Netanyahu previously viewed the peace process as a threat to Israel’s national interests, but his recent statements express the concern that the absence of peace talks directly threatens Israel’s security and existence. Netanyahu’s July 27 open letter to Israeli citizens reveals this potential shift: “I believe it is very important for the state of Israel to enter a diplomatic process. This is important for fully exhausting the chances for ending the conflict with the Palestinians, and also for solidifying Israel's status in the complex international reality that surrounds us.”
In addition to allowing Israel to escape its international pariah status, a peace agreement, according to Netanyahu, will rescue Israel’s Jewish character from the threat of Palestinian population growth. Far outpacing the population growth rate of Jewish Israelis, Palestinian population growth threatens to convert Israel into a binational state. Acknowledging this reality, Netanyahu announced in May that an agreement with the Palestinians “will prevent Israel from becoming a binational state, [and] will provide stability and security” for the country.
If he wishes to reach an agreement and protect Israel from these mounting challenges, Netanyahu will have to defy his right-wing ministers and perhaps exclude them from government. The positions of Bennett and other pro-settlement ministers are simply incompatible with the current peace process and must be marginalized if talks are to proceed.
In the words of Labor Party chief Shelly Yacimovich, "Netanyahu has to decide what government he is leading—a government seeking a peace agreement or one seeking to prevent any possibility of such deal." In the coming months, Netanyahu’s approach to settlements and efforts to rein in the pro-settlement faction will serve as a litmus test for his commitment to peace talks and desire to achieve a historic two-state solution.