Why Netanyahu must stand up to Israel's right

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Story highlights

  • Johnson: A pattern is being established: Netanyahu looks like a man who can be dragged against his better judgment
  • Netanyahu is risking looking reactive: a PM being led rather than leading

Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom and senior research fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM). The opinions in this article are those of the author.

(CNN)Israel is at a crossroads: two states or not two states.

Of course, the world does not expect a deal to be made tomorrow -- or even soon. These days, no one is that naive. But it does want to hear from Israel that there has been no paradigm shift, no retreat to the old dream of a Greater Israel by annexation, and no abandonment -- once recognition, security guarantees and the formal end-of-claims by the Palestinians have been secured -- of the commitment to Palestinian statehood.
Because this significant shift is what is at stake, it really matters that Israel's Naftali Bennett has been making threats again.
    The fiery 44-year-old chairman of the pro-settler, hard-right, religious-Zionist party Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), and the governing coalition's controversial minister of education, thundered this warning in advance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington: "If [US President Donald] Trump and Netanyahu even mention a Palestinian state, the earth will shake."
    Israelis have taken to wondering aloud if Bennett, with his eight seats in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, is the real prime minister and Netanyahu, with his 30 seats, is his ambassador to Washington.
    On issue after issue, Bennett is perceived to have dragged Netanyahu and Israel to the wilder shores of the right and away from the two-state paradigm.
    For example, when IDF soldier Sgt. Elor Azaria shot dead an already wounded Palestinian assailant in the West Bank city of Hebron, Netanyahu initially sided with the stance taken by then-Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and the IDF commanders, saying: "What happened in Hebron does not represent the values of the Israel Defense Forces."
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    After pressure from Bennett and the hard-right, who whipped up a public campaign in defense of Azaria, Netanyahu backtracked, making a personal phone call to Azaria's parents and saying, "We back our soldiers."
    Yaalon was soon after removed as defense minister and replaced by Avigdor Lieberman, who had joined street demonstrations in support of Azaria. Yaalon has since complained bitterly that "the Prime Minister unfortunately switched sides, and decided to embrace the soldier's family. That's his business, not mine. I decided to support the commanders and I was left alone in that war."
    The most significant example of the Bennett effect was the recent passage, to the world's horror, of the Regulation Law, retrospectively legalizing Jewish settlements built on private Palestinian land. Initially Netanyahu opposed it. "Netanyahu warns ministers: Regulation Bill could bring us to the ICC," ran the headlines. And then he voted for it.
    A pattern is being established.
    Bennett appears principled, while Netanyahu appears pliable, a man with a wafer-thin Knesset majority who can be dragged against his better judgment and his own long-held policy positions into Bennett-land.
    Bennett appears pro-active. "My strategic objective is to get Netanyahu to backtrack on the Bar-Ilan speech" in which he committed himself and Israel to the two-state solution, Ynet reported Bennett as saying in private conversations.
    Netanyahu risks looking reactive: he appears to be for the two-state solution, against it, or unsure, depending on the audience and the short-term political need.
    Here are eight reasons why Netanyahu should now say that enough is enough:

    Alienating Israel's Western allies

    Bennettism (support for more and more settlements, dreams of annexation, opposition to a Palestinian state in any circumstances) is doing serious damage to Israel's place in the family of nations. Germany -- one of Israel's closest allies -- let it be known last week that it had been "profoundly shaken" by the passage of the Regulation Law.

    Alienating regional allies

    Bennett is undermining the possibility of a regional peace effort between Israel and the "Sunni pragmatic" states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, who understand Netanyahu's caution perfectly well. None of these nations believe a final status deal and a two-state solution with the Palestinians is possible tomorrow, but they will never agree to live with Bennett's plan to annex most of the West Bank to Israel.

    Israel's international reputation

    Bennett is eroding Israel's place in global public opinion. In desperation, even Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, has warned in recent days that the Regulation Law "will make us look like an Apartheid state" because the government "cannot" apply Israeli law "to territories not under its sovereignty."

    An open goal for Israel's enemies

    If Bennett manages to make the two-state solution impossible then a bi-national reality -- one state between the river and the sea for two peoples -- will be created, and in time that will result in Israel having to choose between being Jewish or democratic. On that, former US Secretary of State John Kerry was dead right. The "Boycott Israel!" crowd are licking their lips.

    Appeasement never works

    Giving way to Bennett has only emboldened him, and he now thinks he can dictate the terms of the relationship between an Israeli prime minister and the new US president. For this, the word chutzpah was invented.

    Trump just doesn't want to hear it.

    While he hardly campaigned in poetry, it's all prose now, when it comes to Israel. As campaign trail talk of moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv -- a longstanding Israeli dream and Palestinian nightmare -- trails off into mumbling as the possible consequences become clear, Trump's belief that he can make "the impossible deal" is being aired more confidently.
    There is simply no common ground between Bennett's proposal that Israel annex Area C of the West Bank (which is 60% of the entire territory) and Trump's statement that "they (settlements) don't help the process. There is (only) so much land left. And every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left ... I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace."

    In a world of strongmen, leaders mustn't look weak

    Neither Trump nor regional actors respect weakness, and right now Bennett is making Netanyahu look weak: a man being led, not a leading prime minister, looking for shelter from the rain made by Bennett.

    The ball is in Netanyahu's court

    Netanyahu has the opportunity to make the weather with Trump and those regional actors who seek new relations with Israel in the face of the shared threat from Iran and jihadists. Both men have hinted -- I think wisely -- that creating a new regional paradigm for Middle East peace is the way forward.
    They know that the "get in a room and sort it out in ten months" paradigm has been tested to destruction. It has failed four times in the last 20 years: Camp David in 2000, Taba in 2001, Annapolis in 2007-08, and the Kerry talks in 2014.
    To create that new regional approach to the two-state solution, and to secure the future of the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic state, Netanyahu must first decide to call Bennett's bluff.