Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should explicitly come out in support of a two-state solution, says Colette Avital, the international secretary of the left-of-centre Labor party, a partner in Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government.
“He’ll have to adopt that kind of policy at the end of the day,” she said in an interview in Toronto just prior to Netanyahu’s much anticipated meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House on May 18.
“Netanyahu doesn’t want to be on a collision course with the United States,” she added in a reference to Obama’s espousal of the two-state model to resolve Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.
Describing Obama as “a breath of fresh air” and a leader “who means business,” she said he wants to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process and is therefore “a very good thing for Israel.”
Although Netanyahu has said he is prepared to resume peace talks with the Palestinians without delay, he and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have declined to openly endorse a two-state solution.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has warned that he won’t negotiate with Israel unless the current Israeli leadership accepts the two-state model.
Avital, who lost her parliamentary seat in last winter’s election after 10 years in the Knesset, observed that Netanyahu’s immediate predecessors, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, both former members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, endorsed the two-state concept.
Urging Netanyahu to relent, Avital – Israel’s former ambassador to Portugal and its former consul general in New York City – said that Israel has a vested interest in Palestinian statehood.
“If we want to continue as a Jewish state, we have to separate from the Palestinians,” she said.
Ratcheting up her warning, she added, “Unless we reach an agreement with the Palestinians, we will end up as a minority in our own land and with a binational state.”
Here to speak to ARZA Canada, she noted that support for a two-state solution in on the wane as a one-state solution is becoming increasingly popular in Palestinian and European circles.
Scoffing at Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state or face the possibility that the the peace process may wither, Avital said, “We can live without this recognition. It is we who should define the identity of our state.”
Avital, a candidate for Israel’s presidency in 2007, advised Netanyahu to accept the Arab League peace proposal, which broadly calls for the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to the pre-1967 border.
“Not everything in the plan is what we like, but it can be a basis for talks.”
Avital said she has no desire to criticize Netanyahu, who assumed office less than two months ago.
“He should be given a chance.”
But she was fairly critical of Lieberman, who has ascribed Israel’s diplomatic deadlock with the Palestinians to Iranian meddling rather than to Israel’s occupation of the territories captured in the Six Day War.
“His views are extreme,” she said, referring in particular to Lieberman’s call for an Israeli Arab loyalty test.
Israel and the Palestinians both share responsibility for the current diplomatic impasse, she said.
The Palestinians should have developed the Gaza Strip after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in 2005, while Israel should not have built more settlements during the Oslo peace process.
Asked about Iran’s quest for a nuclear arsenal, Avital said that United Nations economic sanctions should be tightened if Iran, after talks with the United States, refuses to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
Declining to say whether she supports an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, she said, “A nuclear Iran is a threat to the whole Middle East. It’s the responsibility of the entire world. Why should Israel do the job for everyone else? It should not be left as an Israeli problem.”
Turning to domestic politics, Avital said that if it had been been up to her, she would have counselled Labour party leader and Defence Minister Ehud Barak not to join Netanyahu’s government.
“But I respect his decision,” she said, explaining that Barak had good reasons to join the coalition at a time when Israel faces enormous security challenges.
“It’s probably a decision of responsibility, made for the good of the country rather than for the good of the [Labor] party.”
But she said she doesn’t know whether the move will benefit Labor.
Avital disputed former foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s assertion that Barak will be a “fig leaf” in Netanyahu’s government. “Barak has never been a fig leaf. He is a very strong person.”
Asked what she would advise Barak to do if he fails to moderate Netantyahu’s policies, Avital replied, “I hope he has the guts and courage to leave the government.”
Avital also disagreed with a call by Amir Peretz, Barak’s predecessor as defence minister and Labor leader, that the party – which won only 13 seats in the last election – should reinvent itself into “a new, genuine labour party.”