Left to right, Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party and Naftali Bennett of the Yamina (Right) party. The two have formed a coalition and may oust Benjamin Netanyahu. Photos: AFP / Jack Guez

Back in 1996, when Benjamin Netanyahu made his first and successful run for prime minister of Israel, the key issue at hand was the notion of “land for peace” – whether Israel should surrender occupied territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the Palestinians in return for recognition and agreed security.

Netanyahu staunchly opposed land-for-peace and backed his conviction with an aggressive eastern Jerusalem and West Bank settlement policy.

During his total 16 years in power, Netanyahu was instrumental in changing the face of the West Bank, where the bulk of Palestinians live.

He overcame the objections of foreign allies, notably the United States, which considered the settlements an obstacle to peace. The “two-state solution,” the diplomatic sibling of land for peace, has been made all but impossible.

Since the 1967 Middle East War, when Israel conquered what are now known as the Palestinian territories, all Israeli prime ministers nurtured settlement development. Netanyahu has been particularly active. In 1996, when he defeated Labor party leader Shimon Peres, there were 290,000 settlers in the West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem. Now, 650,000 live there.

Fast forward to 2021, Netanyahu is on his way out of office. Land for peace, so important a half-century ago, or even in 2009 when he began his run of 12 straight years in power, is no longer at the center of Israeli politics.

His apparent ouster now hangs not on the “land for peace” question but unpopularity among former allies. They want him unseated not because of his policies toward Palestinians, which they largely support, but due to their aversion toward his abrasive personality and unease with corruption charges leveled against him.

For the past dozen years, Netanyahu’s coalitions relied on parties headed by politicians who once worked for him and now have abandoned him: Naftali Bennet, Benny Gantz, Gideon Saar and Avigdor Lieberman. They all backed his opposition to land-for-peace formulas and all supported settlement expansion.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks set to being ousted but his replacements share his views on the Palestinians. Photo: AFP / Sebastian Scheiner

None has changed his mind. Only Lieberman has ever forcibly considered the two-state solution, and then only if Israel transfers its Arab Israeli citizens to Palestinian authority control – the so-called population transfer solution. Of the minimum 61 seats needed to form a new parliamentary majority, parties controlled by the four hold a total of 29.

The rejection of land for peace is controversial only in the recesses of minor left-wing parties. They include two leftist parties and an Arab Islamist group. Altogether, those parties control 17 seats in parliament.

Yair Lapid, a former TV journalist who was Netanyahu’s finance minister in 2013-2014, is the fulcrum between the right and left wings of this coalition. His party won 17 seats.

Though Lapid nominally favors a two-state solution, he has not laid out his plans for new borders or either settlement expansion or demolition. Netanyahu fired him as finance minister not because he opposed settlement construction in principle. At the time, Lapid opposed spending money on such projects during a period of economic austerity.

Under the new coalition agreement, Bennet, who once called the two-state solution “suicide” for Israel, will be prime minister for two years, followed by Lapid who will hold the job for two years.

In this election, the Palestinian issue shrunk in importance. The 11-day Gaza War that took place afterwards created an uproar, but it did not stimulate moves toward peace talks of any sort. Only a ceasefire was reached.

Palestinians throw stones with slingshots in Bethlehem on May 15, raising fears of inter-communal violence. Photo: AFP / Anadolu Agency / Wisam Hashlamoun

Instead of the Palestinian issue, post-Gaza attention has centered on Jewish-Arab rioting within Israel.  Violence at the al-Aqsa Mosque complex in Jerusalem featured Jewish Israelis and police pitted against Jerusalem Palestinians and Israeli Arabs from towns inside the country. 

Jerusalem Palestinians do not hold Israeli citizenship. Israeli Arabs, many of whom identify as Palestinian, do. Unrest in Arab Israeli towns gave rise to concern over a possible communal war. Lapid indirectly referred to the problem stating that the new coalition, “Will do everything to unite Israeli society.”

Israel’s indifference to peace talks and the land issue has been matched by US President Joe Biden’s inaction. During the Gaza conflict, Biden paid lip service to a two-state solution. However, he made no concrete moves to put peace talks in motion, for instance by naming an envoy to arrange them.

He only reopened a US consulate in East Jerusalem, a symbolic measure to suggest the future of Jerusalem is up in the air. But he will not move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv. It was placed in Jerusalem by President Donald Trump. Netanyahu celebrated it as a major achievement of his tenure.

Political observers in Israel and the United States think Biden will keep the two-state solution on the back burner. The Palestinian Authority that runs Palestinian towns in the West Bank clings to the two-state solution. Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian faction that rules Gaza, opposes the solution.

The presence of leftist parties in the coalition gives Biden a cover to warm to the new government after cooling when he was vice president under Barack Obama. That is, unless dramatic annexation or further settlement expansion takes place that would show Biden’s two-state declaration to be a sham.

In short, Netanyahu’s policy toward Palestinians was perhaps his most significant achievement. It remains intact. Just hardly anyone wants to mention it.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.