Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu grabs a green marker and jumps from his seat to sketch a map of the West Bank on a whiteboard. With vigorous strokes, the former Israeli prime minister and current leader of the rightwing Likud party outlines his plan for tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.With the bias against Netanyahu dripping from the FT's pages, a reader would be tempted to dismiss Netanyahu's plans as just the ravings of an extremist lunatic.
What emerges is not what the Palestinians and almost the entire international community have in mind, which is a contiguous Palestinian state that follows broadly the borders in place before the 1967 war and the Israeli occupation. Instead, Mr Netanyahu wants to see the West Bank divided into a collection of disconnected economic zones with dedicated business projects.
The ancient town of Jericho, for instance, should capitalise on its proximity to the Jordan River to attract Baptist tourists from the US – a location which the hawkish leader of the Israeli opposition says is “easily worth tens of thousands of jobs”.
The Palestinians, Mr Netanyahu adds, would be allowed to hold on to their population centres. Other parts of the West Bank, such as the Judean desert and the Jordan Valley, should not leave Israeli control: “These areas are very significant for us because they are our strategic security belt,” he says.
Mr Netanyahu says he does not want to stop the current peace talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. But he would shift the emphasis away from a comprehensive settlement aimed at the creation of a Palestinian state towards practical steps designed to bolster living standards in the West Bank. “It is not so much that peace brings prosperity – it is that prosperity brings peace,” he says.
Such hawkish views, which run counter to current Israeli policy, infuriate Palestinian leaders, who reject Mr Netanyahu’s plan as an attempt to confine them into Bantustans – partially self-governing areas.
They may also exasperate many of Israel’s allies abroad, which overwhelmingly support the idea of an independent – and contiguous – Palestinian state.
Mr Netanyahu does not have the opportunity to put his plans into practice quite yet. For the moment, he has to contend with the indignities of life as an ordinary legislator in a tiny office.
It is from this modest perch that Mr Netanyahu has watched Israel’s current political crisis unfold, beginning with the publication of new corruption allegations against Ehud Olmert and his resignation as Israeli prime minister, right up to the current struggle of Tzipi Livni, his designated successor, to form a new government.He makes clear that a second Netanyahu-led government would be guided by much the same worldviews that turned him into such a polarising figure in the first place: a Reaganesque belief in low taxes, small government and free markets, coupled with a Bushian commitment to defeat “radical Islam” as the shared enemy of Israel, the US and Europe.
Resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians – the focus of both Mr Olmert’s and Ms Livni’s attention – is a second-order issue for the Likud leader: “The issue for me is not the Palestinian problem. I think that conflict has been replaced by the battle between radical Islam and the western world,” he says.
Handing back control of the Israeli-occupied West Bank to the Palestinians as part of a peace deal, argues Mr Netanyahu, would simply strengthen the hand of Israel’s Iranian foe. “Any area we withdraw from will be taken over by Iran and its proxies,” he claims, pointing to the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group, last year. “Both Lebanon and Gaza have become Iranian bases, and they would get a third one if we retreat from the West Bank.”
Why, exactly, is emphasizing the ability for Palestinian Arabs to build their own economy - independent of Israel, to which it is now completely dependent - considered "hawkish?" What exactly is "rightwing" about emphasizing improving the lives of ordinary PalArabs to be much better than they are now after 15 years of a failed "peace plan" and roadmap to an inevitable - and inevitable failure - of a state? Why is it considered beyond the pale for an Israeli leader to prioritize the safety of Israelis?
(The "bantustan" argument is also absurd. The different economic areas would be no more disconnected than Manhattan is from Brooklyn, where oppressed New Yorkers are forced not only to go through manned checkpoints - but they have to pay for the privilege!)
Human rights for Palestinian Arabs, who have been screwed by the entire world for decades, are important. Those who are stuck in so-called "refugee camps" in Lebanon and Syria and Jordan should be integrated as full citizens into the countries they have lived in for two generations. The ones in the territories should have the ability to live in dignity - with their own jobs and their own independent economy. They should have control over their day-to-day affairs.
However, an independent "Palestine" which is likely to be co-opted by radical Islamists is not a human right. And the human rights of Israelis who would be the victims of another Iranian-backed Hamastan in the West Bank are no less important than the human rights of West Bank Arabs. (Neither, for that matter, are the human rights of the Jews who have also raised families in the West Bank to live in peace and security in their homes.)
There is nothing hawkish about emphasizing real human rights for Palestinian Arabs, in pushing for them to become prosperous and no longer dependent on billions of dollars from the international community. And given the track record of Oslo and its progeny, a prestigious economic newspaper should not be so dismissive of a plan that focuses on building an independent economy where none exists today.