Prime Minister Stephen Harper reiterated Canada’s support for a two-state solution in a conversation last week with Binyamin Netanyahu, the just-reelected prime minister of Israel.
The commitment to Palestinian self-determination was a subtle but clear message to the Israeli leader. Since Harper came to office, Canada has refrained from joining the global chorus of condemnation against Israel. Harper’s office issued a statement Sunday summarizing the remarks he shared with Netanyahu, which included congratulations on his success in the March 17 election.
Canada’s modest reminder to Netanyahu that the world expects a long-range resolution to the conflict that includes a Palestinian state reflects just one of the serious issues facing Netanyahu domestically and internationally.
The Israeli prime minister inherits – from himself – a political and diplomatic mess. In the last days of the election campaign, Netanyahu declared that a Palestinian state would not emerge on his watch. The context of the remarks may not have been quite as dramatic as media reports and global reaction suggest – he said they were premised on his assertion that the conditions were not ripe for a secure Palestinian state to emerge given the strength of adjacent Islamist regimes. And, in fact, immediately after the votes were counted, he began backpedalling.
But Netanyahu’s rhetoric is rarely subtle and he should not escape blame for his words and actions. On election day itself, Netanyahu sought to drive his supporters to the polls by warning of Arab-Israeli voters flocking to the polls in “droves” – a racist statement that pitted one group of Israeli citizens against another in ways utterly unbecoming the leader of a country.
Whatever it says about the Israeli electorate, these statements probably played a significant role in the surprise surge that delivered victory to Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Now that he is returning to office, Netanyahu has external as well as internal divisions to mend. Israel was already suffering from a lack of friends on the international stage before Netanyahu exacerbated already deeply strained relations with the American leader.
No one refutes the bad blood between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, and both men bear blame for behaving like brats, rather than leaders of crucial allied states. But while Obama’s behavior toward Israel has looked passive-aggressive, Netanyahu’s behavior has been just plain aggressive, showing up in the American legislature to school the superpower on the subject of global politics.
Netanyahu may have revelled in the adulation of Republican and some Democratic lawmakers, but he was used as an obliging dupe in a domestic American partisan smackdown that verged on a constitutional calamity.
Now returning to office, Netanyahu faces a world even less amenable to his approach and weary of his belligerent manner. In these critical days of negotiation with Iran, Netanyahu is now trying to build bridges to the French leadership because he has lost leverage with the Americans.
In less than two years, the United States will have a new president, which will possibly reset the dynamic in the relationship, but the damage goes beyond a personal relationship.
Now that Israeli elections are over to Netanyahu’s satisfaction, perhaps he will allow his more diplomatic side to temper his politically expedient nature. The creation of his new coalition and cabinet will be the first major opportunity to read the tea leaves of his approach post-victory. We hope it signals a fresh approach.
Over the years, we have contended that Israeli decisions must be made based on Israeli needs, not on what makes it easiest for Diaspora Zionists to advocate for or defend Israel. But Netanyahu’s behavior during the election campaign has created genuine, real, not insignificant rifts between Israel and the people, like us, who are among its staunchest friends in the world.
It is up to Netanyahu now to demonstrate maturity and openness abroad and to repair the damage he has done domestically by pitting groups of Israelis against one another, by preordaining the failure of a two-state solution and for poking the country’s once-greatest ally in the eye.