- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's political party, Likud, gave a statement on Sunday that said he repudiated his much-discussed 2009 speech that supported ending the Israel-Palestine conflict with a "two-state solution." Many have read this as Netanyahu dropping his support for an independent Palestinian state.
- Netanyahu faces difficult odds in the Israeli elections a little over a week away; he may be attempting to shore up his conservative base and fend off political challengers on his right.
- Later on Sunday, Netanyahu's office released its own statement disputing the accuracy of Likud's statement, insisting the prime minister "never said such a thing."
Three different statements about what Netanyahu believes
This all began on Friday, when the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth published what it said was documentation of a secret back-channel during the now-defunct 2013 US-led peace talks, in which Netanyahu's government proposed significant concessions toward the existence of a Palestinian state. The report put political pressure on Netanyahu, who may have appeared "soft" to voters on the right.
Then, on Saturday, Netanyahu's Likud Party published the first of what are now three contradictory statements on the prime minister's beliefs. This first statement was an election pamphlet announcing that Netanyahu had rejected his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, in which he had first endorsed the idea of establishing a Palestinian state as part of a peace deal:
The Prime Minister announced that the Bar-Ilan speech is null and void. Netanyahu's entire political biography is a fight against the creation of a Palestinian state.
When this created an uproar, Likud at first walked it back, saying the pamphlet reflected the personal opinion of its author and not official policy.
But, as questions mounted, on Sunday Likud published a new statement — the second — that seemed to affirm the notion that Netanyahu now rejects the idea of a two-state solution, and thus the creation of a Palestinian state:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that [in light of] the situation that has arisen in the Middle East, any evacuated territory would fall into the hands of Islamic extremism and terror organizations supported by Iran. Therefore, there will be no concessions or withdrawals; they are simply irrelevant.
Later on Sunday, Netanyahu's personal office released the third statement of the weekend. This one announced that the two earlier statements were incorrect, and that Netanyahu had "never said such a thing."
The crucial bit of context here is that Israel is holding an election on March 17. While Netanyahu's coalition is still generally expected to do well enough for him to stay in his position as prime minister, that is not assured, and Netanyahu has been especially challenged by the right. Israel has substantial religious and secular right-wing movements, both of which tend to oppose the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Netanyahu's conservative political base is skeptical at best of striking a peace deal with Palestinians. This statement, in narrow political terms, may be Netanyahu's attempt to curb the challenge from his right and drive support among his base.
It's also worth noting that this coincides with a disintegration in relations between Netanyahu's government and the United States. Years of tension between Netanyahu and President Obama culminated in the Israeli leader's highly controversial speech to Congress just a few days earlier undermining Obama's efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. The two-state deal is a major priority of the United States, and has been since before Obama, so Netanyahu may have felt more comfortable rejecting it now that relations are already so sour.
Skeptics have long doubted Netanyahu's true views on this
For as long as there has been an Israel-Palestine conflict, the most viable path to peace has typically been seen as the "two-state solution," in which both Israelis and Palestinians would have their own independent states. President George W. Bush made this a centerpiece of his 2002 peace plan.
The same year Benjamin Netanyahu become Israel's prime minister, in 2009 (he had previously held the office in the 1990s), he gave a speech at Bar-Ilan University endorsing the two-state deal, though tepidly and with significant caveats.
Netanyahu, a member of the conservative Likud Party, had never been a strong advocate for peace, so his speech was a seemingly historic moment. It also infuriated many to his political right.
Observers in both the US and Israel, though, soon began to wonder whether the speech was a sincere statement of Netanyahu's views and his government's policies. He did little to pursue this goal and has acted frequently contrary to it, for example by repeatedly expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank, though it was clear to all observers — and repeatedly stressed by the United States — that this made peace far more difficult.
As the New Yorker's David Remnick wrote in 2013:
Netanyahu has done almost nothing to follow through on a two-state solution, and most Likud politicians today contend that he was deeply ambivalent about the speech, which caused a serious rift with his father and within the Party. They are convinced that he did it mainly to placate Barack Obama.
A lot has happened in the Israel-Palestine peace process between 2009 and today, and Netanyahu's critics as well as detractors have many data points they can point to in support of their various readings of his intentions and level of sincerity. The dueling statements this weekend have only further muddied the waters.