WASHINGTON -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concluded his visit to Washington with an appearance at the Center for American Progress, where he sought to redeem himself with the Democratic Party and draw broader acceptance of the indefinite Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Early on in the hourlong Q&A session, CAP president Neera Tanden asked the Israeli prime minister whether he envisions Israel will continue to occupy the West Bank and control Gaza in 20 years.
Netanyahu’s response was a winding depiction of a protracted battle between modernity and “early medievalism,” without any explicit mention of the Palestinians. “It depends on what happens in the Middle East, and what happens in the world,” he said.
“I think ultimately medievalism loses and modernity wins. That’s usually the case in the great battles with these fanatic ideologies. Nazism lost,” he continued. “Will they lose in the next 20 years? I don’t know. But I think what we have to make sure is that we are around.”
When pushed on the specifics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu rejected the notion that Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank constitutes a threat to peace. “There have been no new settlements built in the past 20 years,” he said in an attempt to differentiate between building new communities and new settlement units. “The additions are in existing communities.”
But even under this logic, Netanyahu’s claims don’t hold up. B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, lists multiple settlements with a post-1995 establishment date. Under Netanyahu’s watch, Israel has also retroactively legalized several unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank. And just before Netanyahu's CAP appearance, the Israeli government approved 2,200 settlement units and legalized two more outposts.
Netanyahu tried to frame construction of new settlement units as necessary. “People live there. Look, they’re human beings,” he said in an exasperated tone. “You don’t say, well all the firstborn -- throw them on the other side of the green line."
On the issue of settler violence, Netanyahu insisted that in Israel “what is illegal is illegal,” and defended his government’s failure so far to charge anyone for the July arson attack in Duma, which killed a Palestinian baby and his parents.
The prime minister accused critics of ignoring the level of violence Israelis face from Palestinians. “There are many Dumas on the Palestinian side of the ledger,” he said. “Every four hours roughly we have a Duma -- not Duma because they try with the Molotov cocktails and the other things, but they don’t succeed. … There is no symmetry in Israeli and Palestinian societies.”
Netanyahu referenced the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as evidence that settlements could be dealt with in the future. For now, he said, the obstacles to peace are the Palestinians’ unwillingness to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and acquiesce to Israel’s long-term security demands over the Palestinian territories.
At various points of the peace process, Palestinian leadership has both recognized Israel as a Jewish state and also vowed never to do so. But it's unlikely the issue of recognition would be the backstop in a peace agreement if other conditions were in place.
Even if the overall occupation of the Palestinian territories were to end -- whether by a negotiated agreement or by unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank to avoid the de facto creation of a binational state -- Israel would still retain an indefinite security presence “in the areas basically West of Jordan," said Netanyahu.
"How can we leave a security presence of Israel for the indefinite future?" said Netanyahu. "I say, well, have you ever heard of Germany? Or Okinawa? Or South Korea? You can if you need to."
Netanyahu pointed to the Hamas takeover in Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal 10 years ago as an example of why not to remove settlers without leaving a security force in place.
Israel’s long-term security presence in the West Bank was a key topic of discussion in the last round of peace talks led by Secretary of State John Kerry -- and the parties never reached a consensus before talks collapsed for other reasons.
Whether or not Netanyahu succeeded in convincing his audience of the necessity of a prolonged Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, he emerged from the Q&A largely unscathed.
Progressives slammed CAP’s decision to host Netanyahu, saying it gave bipartisan legitimacy to a politician who spent much of the past year working to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal, Obama’s top foreign policy agenda item.
But Tanden defended the event as an opportunity to push Netanyahu on tough issues that likely wouldn’t be brought up at the American Enterprise Institute -- a conservative think tank across town that hosted Netanyahu for an awards ceremony Monday night.
While Tanden’s questions were hardly softballs -- in addition to settlement construction and accountability for the Duma attack, she brought up his campaign warning about Arabs voting “in droves” -- she failed to challenge him on several long and obfuscating responses.
In acknowledgement of the controversy caused by his visit, Netanyahu told Tanden he was doubly appreciative of the invitation. “Invite me back,” he said to her with a grin at the end of the discussion.
Tanden laughed. “We’ll see,” she responded quietly.