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“They say one thing in English but another in Arabic.” It’s a common refrain from people who insist that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. It was repeated again yesterday by Education Minister Naftali Bennett. But instead of “Arabic,” he said Hebrew, and instead of talking about Palestinians, his comments were directed at Netanyahu:
Bennett also indirectly criticized Netanyahu for opposing a Palestinian state before the 2015 elections and supporting it after the elections.
“The time has come to say clearly: The land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel,” Bennett said. “In Hebrew, English, Russian and French; in summer and in winter; when there are elections and when there aren’t. Why? Because the world listens to every word we say.”
“We can’t be in favor of the land of Israel in Hebrew and establish a Palestinian state in English.”
It’s rare that I agree with Bennett, but he’s onto something here: Netanyahu is all over the place when it comes to his stated support for a two-state solution. From pledging on the run-up to his re-election that there would never be a Palestinian state on his watch, to his and Avigdor Lieberman’s recent affirmation of their commitment to a two-state solution.
Netanyahu’s tendency to flip-flop on two-states was summed up nicely this weekend in his speech marking Jerusalem Day. Times of Israel reported:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said that the Israeli capital of Jerusalem will never again be divided, while also reiterating his commitment to restarting peace talks with the Palestinians who, in any peace agreement, would want to see East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
So what does Netanyahu really want? Bennett can take solace in the fact that Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution is limited to occasional statements in support of peace. His actions tell a different story. The settlement population has soared under Netanyahu’s watch, he sits in a government with avowed enemies of a two-state solution and he repeatedly undermines Palestinian leaders’ confidence in his seriousness about peace. He does this by with pledges to maintain a permanent presence in the Jordan valley, demands that Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” and refusal to put Jerusalem’s final-status on the table.
This underscores that the core of the issue is not what Netanyahu — or Abbas for that matter — says. Their actions are far more important. Of course, it’s important that both leaders talk about their commitment to two-states. It’s important that in Hebrew, Arabic and English, both leaders condemn incitement and terror. But if they don’t act on it, their words don’t mean much. And in Netanyahu’s case, saying one thing and doing another is actively damaging.
The contrast between Netanyahu’s words and actions empowers opponents of a two-state solution. If somebody who supports settlement expansion, opposes sharing Jerusalem, wants to maintain permanent occupation in parts of the West Bank and enters into government after government with far-right extremists can claim to support a two-state solution, it loses its meaning. A two-state solution will require tough compromises. If you close off the possibility of making those those compromises before entering negotiations, you cannot support a two-state solution. By claiming to, Netanyahu gives fodder to two-state opponents on both the right and left who point to his many contradictions as evidence that a two-state solution is impossible.
This all just underscores that we should measure seriousness about a two-state solution through actions as well as words. Netanyahu could affirm his commitment to a two-state solution in English, Hebrew, Arabic and French, but it would not matter much if his policies stayed constant. So while Bennett was right that Netanyahu is inconsistent in his words, his actions speak far louder.
Benjy Cannon is the 2015-2016 Mikva Fellow at J Street. He’s on Twitter at @benjycannon