This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal at jewishjournal.org on March 26, 2015, and is reprinted with kind permission.
After Prime Minister Netanyahu's resounding victory in the Israeli elections, his critics have seized upon his pre-election statement that he opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state. President Obama himself, no doubt deeply disappointed that Netanyahu has been returned to office, raised this statement in his belated congratulatory phone call, and White House officials have since continued to challenge Netanyahu on it.
But amid all the controversy over Netanyahu's remark and what his real intentions are regarding a Palestinian state, few have stopped to ask why his public disavowal of support for Palestinian statehood in the closing stages of a tight election campaign was so effective in drumming up support among Israeli voters. Instead of simply denouncing Netanyahu for his fear mongering and scare tactics, it is important to understand why these tactics actually worked. Why were so many Israeli voters frightened by the prospect of a center-left government in Jerusalem, and why did they vote for a leader who said he wouldn't allow a Palestinian state?
Israeli voters are not simply delusional, paranoid, or under the spell of a manipulative demagogue, as they are often presented to be. Netanyahu is certainly a skillful and cunning politician, but he is not some kind of Svengali who has entranced the Israeli public. In fact, he is widely unpopular in Israel, notwithstanding his election success. He won not because of his personal appeal, but because his hawkish views on Israel's most important issues—the conflict with the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear program-are widely shared by many, if not most Israeli Jews.
This Israeli election proved that while economic issues preoccupy Israelis on a day-to-day basis, when it comes to voting they are trumped by national security concerns. Although he has done very little to make Israel a more affordable place to live (let alone to reduce the country's growing wealth gap), Netanyahu is still regarded as the best steward of the country's security. Until Israelis can trust a leader of the center-left with their security—as they did with the former generals Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and Ehud Barak in 1999—they will continue to prefer right-wing parties.
Ultimately, the cost of housing and the price of cottage cheese do not matter to Israelis nearly as much as their security and survival. Since the outbreak of the second Intifada they have been convinced that the Palestinians cannot be trusted and that they are not truly interested in peace. Since the disengagement from Gaza they have also become convinced that territorial withdrawals only encourage Palestinian aggression and result in rocket attacks and terrorism. And since the outbreak of the Arab Spring they have witnessed the collapse of Arab states (Syria, Libya, Yemen) and the horrific violence that results from it. Consequently, many have reluctantly come to the conclusion that if a Palestinian state were to be established it would pose a major threat to their security.
The majority of the Israeli Jewish public is not in principle opposed to a Palestinian state (a vocal and highly mobilized minority is). Over the years, most Israeli Jews have come to accept that the Palestinians have a right to national self-determination. They have no desire to rule over the Palestinians indefinitely. Regardless of its religious and national significance, they would willingly give up much of the West Bank if they thought they could do so safely. The problem is simply that they currently see no way of withdrawing from the West Bank without jeopardizing their own security. It is this concern that Netanyahu speaks to when he rejects the establishment of a Palestinian state. Like it or not, he is only saying what many Israelis Jews are thinking.
Without acknowledging and addressing the legitimate security concerns of Israelis, there is no way that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be achieved. This does not mean that the Palestinians must consent to every Israeli demand made in the name of security, or that the United States must accept whatever Israel declares as its security requirements (such as a permanent Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley). The Palestinians also have legitimate security concerns, primarily regarding Israel, that also need to be taken into account. What it does mean though is that proponents of a two-state solution—and I am one of them—must do a better job of convincing Israelis and Palestinians that such a solution is really in their interests, not years from now, but as soon as possible. And since Israelis, in particular, need to be persuaded to support a major withdrawal from the West Bank they need to assured that, while there are real risks involved, these risks can be managed, albeit not entirely alleviated.
Instead of focusing on Netanyahu's fear mongering, let's focus on trying to assuage Israeli fears. Only then will Israelis vote for someone who really supports Palestinian statehood.