The media have declared that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acceptance of “two states for two peoples” is a major breakthrough. Yet they fail to note the real novelty in Netanyahu’s celebrated speech at the BESA Center: his building of a new consensus within Israel.
Netanyahu does not underestimate the importance of the United States to Israel’s survival. As someone who grew up in the United States, Netanyahu knows and appreciates its might. Remembering how the unpleasant relations with the Clinton administration were detrimental to his first administration, he would clearly seek to avoid a direct confrontation with Washington.
Moreover, the centrality of the Iranian existential threat in Netanyahu’s perception, a threat mentioned immediately at the outset of his BESA Center/Bar-Ilan speech, makes the role of the United States even more central in his foreign policy.
Maintenance of good relations with the United States is also an integral part of Israeli public opinion, and thus Netanyahu has so far done his best to reconcile the differences between the two foreign policies. However, the consensus-building and domestic solidarity behind his foreign policy seem to have been even more important in his political performance.
Israeli society has been split between right and left on the question of the territories since the mid-1970s. While the right highlighted the security threat and the historical betrayal in abandoning Judea and Samaria, the left underscored the demographic threat and negative impact of conquest in controlling millions of Palestinians.
In recent years, however, we have been witnessing the emergence of a broad consensus that is also translated into electoral successes of centrist parties like Shinui and Kadima. The essence of this consensus could be described as a new realism. It implies that both the dream of Jewish control of the historic borders of the land of Israel, and the dream of a permanent status comprehensive peace with the Palestinians, have been relinquished.
An indication of this new consensus is widespread public support for the erection of the security barrier between Israel and the Palestinians. The barrier is a symbol both of the abandonment of the historic territories and of resignation to the implausibility of a negotiated peace.
It is toward this new consensus that Netanyahu was aiming when he stated in his Bar-Ilan speech that “the truth is that we have much more that unites us than divides us. I have come tonight to give expression to that unity, and to the principles of peace and security on which there is broad agreement within Israeli society.”
Consensus-building as a priority is a far cry from the first Netanyahu government, which was built on a right-wing coalition and had been epitomized as a constant struggle with the left. Netanyahu paid a high price for bringing in Labor, which at best provides him only with nine votes, while he could have built a comfortable coalition with the right-wing National Union party.
An interesting example is the way in which the prime minister reprimanded his deputy, former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, in the wake of Ya’alon’s recent remarks about Peace Now. (He compared it to a virus.) During his first administration Netanyahu had produced several statements that also generated very similar public flare-ups.
Thus, the second-term Netanyahu seems a more mature leader who has thus far demonstrated a determination not to repeat mistakes of the past. The forging of a foreign policy that is built on a domestic consensus – while trying to minimize the frictions between the international and the domestic settings – plays an important role in his political behavior and should not be underestimated.