keren berl katzenelson center logo

Misconception 4:
Peace Without Palestinians

Netanyahu claimed he found a brilliant way to deal with Palestinian terrorism: Entering into normalization agreements with Arab countries while sidelining the Palestinian question completely. On October 7, 2023, this illusion was ripped to shreds.

1995

 In his book A Place in the Sun, Netanyahu asserts that if Israel signs peace treaties with the other countries in the region, while ignoring the Palestinians, the latter will capitulate and give up their national aspirations

January 2020

  Trump and Netanyahu unveil the “Deal of the Century,” which defines the future of the Territories but was drafted without Palestinian input

September 2020

 Israel signs the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain. Morocco and Sudan come aboard later

October 2022

 In his autobiography, Netanyahu writes that “the road to peace doesn’t run through Ramallah; it bypasses it”

December 2022

Netanyahu’s sixth Government is sworn in. Its guidelines and the coalition agreements are silent about negotiations with the Palestinians

August 2023

 In an American media interview, Netanyahu says that in the negotiations with Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian issue is only “a checkbox that you have to check to say you’re doing it”

September 2023

  Netanyahu addresses the UN General Assembly: “An historic peace with Saudi Arabia… will go a long way to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.” The Palestinians do not appear on the map of the Middle East he displays 

October 2023

 The Biden administration asks that an agreement with Saudi Arabia include some gesture towards the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s reaction is that “the mayor of Ramallah [meaning Abu Mazen] will not determine the details of the agreement”

October 2023

 After the war breaks out, Saudi Arabia suspends its contacts with Israel and calls for “a just and comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians.” There are signs of major tension with other Arab countries, including Egypt and Jordan

For years, right-wing Israeli governments under Netanyahu’s leadership have stubbornly refused to pursue any diplomatic process with the Palestinians. At the start of his tenure, Netanyahu alleged various excuses for the diplomatic stagnation, such as the Palestinian’s to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, or the claim that that evacuating the settlements (a sine qua non for the establishment of a Palestinian state) would be tantamount to “ethnic cleansing.”

But Netanyahu and the Right never proposed a single alternative to the Left’s two-state solution, which has enjoyed resounding international support, or a way to evade the Palestinian demand for removal of the settlements. Until he hit on a magic solution: why get entangled in a peace process with the Palestinians, which would require the evacuation of settlements, when peace could be achieved without them? The direct result of this new approach was the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, signed in 2020.

On the eve of the signing of the agreements, Netanyahu crowed: “We have brought a historic agreement that bursts through the notion that we need to uproot communities or else we won’t reach an agreement with an Arab nation. We have broken that terrible and dangerous doctrine.” Netanyahu termed his new doctrine “peace for peace.” Whereas in the past Arab countries had always conditioned the signing of peace agreements on territorial withdrawals by Israel or progress on the Palestinian track, now, he asserted, it was possible to reach agreements with them as if the Palestinians didn’t exist at all.

The Prime Minister sold the public the delusion that Israel’s national security is determined not in Gaza and the West Bank but in the Gulf states. In an August interview, Netanyahu said that the Palestinian issue is only “a checkbox that you have to check to say you’re doing it” while pursuing peace with Saudi Arabia.

Prime Minister Netanyahu sold the public an illusion, according to which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not in urgent need of resolution: It is possible to preserve the status quo indefinitely, with Israel’s national security being determined not in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but in the Gulf States. In an interview earlier this year, Netanyahu said that the Palestinian issue is only “a checkbox that you have to check to say you’re doing it”—lip service on the road to normalization with Saudi Arabia.

The rapprochement of recent years with other countries in the region, while ignoring the Palestinians, was possible only because of the temporary lessening of tension in Gaza and the West Bank. Netanyahu’s new friends, the rulers of the Gulf states, assumed that Israel had found a way to avert new flare-ups in the Palestinian arena and thus to spare them the headache of dealing with public opinion in their own countries. So as long as relative quiet prevailed, Israel and the Emirates could operate as if there were no connection between the Palestinian issue and their newly woven relations.

The rulers of the Gulf states assumed that Israel could prevent new outbreaks of violence on the Palestinian front and spare them the headache of dealing with public opinion in their own countries. This delusion began to crumble when the Netanyahu–Smotrich–Ben-Gvir Government was formed.

This delusion began to crumble in 2022, when the Netanyahu–Smotrich–Ben Gvir Government was formed. The Gulf States began to reconsider their alliance with Israel in light of the establishment of the far-right government, whose leaders declared their intention to advance annexation of the territories and change the status quo on the Temple Mount. At the same time, public opinion polls in Arab countries reported fierce opposition to normalization with Israel, fuelled by the belief that regimes who entered into agreements with Israel “sold out” the Palestinians.

 

The notion of “peace for peace” was blown to smithereens on October 7. The first delusion to go was that Israel could control the intensity of the flames in its conflict with the Palestinians. The next to collapse was that escalation of that conflict would not affect the interests of other countries in the region, including those that have had ties with Israel for many years, such as Egypt and Jordan. Another factor here is the impact of normalization on the conflict itself: according to various sources, including President Biden, the closer ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia pushed Hamas, egged on by Iran, to escalate the conflict in a way that would derail the process.

 

The delusion that Israel could control the intensity of the flames in its conflict with the Palestinians was the first to collapse. The next to collapse was that escalation of the conflict would not affect the interests of other countries in the region, such as Egypt and Jordan.

For the Arab countries, the events of October 7 transformed the Palestinians’ condition from a subsidiary concern to an issue with direct impact on their most basic interests. They suddenly discovered that the deterioration on the Palestinian front was liable to undermine the stability of their own regimes, trigger a full-scale war with Iran, and dramatically change the extent of American involvement in the region. Countries that have not yet signed agreements with Israel, notably Saudi Arabia, now understand only too clearly that the situation on the Palestinian front casts a heavy shadow on their ability to advance normalization with Israel.

Although it is too soon to estimate the damage that the war will wreak on normalization between Israel and the Arab world, one thing is clear: “Peace for peace” can be relegated to the dustbin. Henceforth no actor in the region can behave as if the Palestinians do not exist. Even if the Arab League does not formulate a new comprehensive peace plan, similar to that of 2002, its members will be deeply involved in the ongoing efforts to prevent escalation.

Only days before the massacre, Netanyahu proclaimed that “when the Palestinians see that most of the Arab world has reconciled itself to the Jewish state, they too will be more likely to abandon the fantasy of destroying Israel.” October 7 revealed that “peace for peace” is a dangerous fraud.

Only two weeks before the massacre, Netanyahu stood at the podium of the UN General Assembly and proclaimed, with overweening confidence, that “an historic peace with Saudi Arabia… will go a long way to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. It will encourage other Arab states to normalize relations with Israel… We face… a choice today [that] will determine whether we enjoy the blessings of a historic peace of boundless prosperity and hope or suffer the curse of a horrific war, of terrorism and despair… When the Palestinians see that most of the Arab world has reconciled itself to the Jewish state, they too will be more likely to abandon the fantasy of destroying Israel and finally embrace a path of genuine peace with it.”

The events of October 7 revealed that “peace for peace” or a peace that bypasses the Palestinians is a dangerous fraud. Netanyahu wasn’t trying to play down the Palestinian problem in order to achieve peace with the countries of the region; he was pursuing peace with those countries in order to make the Palestinian problem disappear. His main goal was and remains to prevent a political agreement with the Palestinians. The results of this plan were all too evident on Saturday, October 7.

Netanyahu wasn’t trying to play down the Palestinian problem in order to achieve peace with the countries of the region; he was pursuing peace with those countries in order to make the Palestinian problem disappear and prevent a diplomatic solution. The results of this plan were all too evident on October 7.