LFI director: Post-Bibi: Aligning two-state hopes with Israeli fears after 7 October

LFI director Michael Rubin has written the below article for the Fathom Journal. Click here to read the original.

LFI director Michael Rubin

After 7 October the idea that any Palestinian actor can be trusted to control territory on Israel’s borders is scarcely credible to most Israelis. Yet the US, the UK, and the EU are pushing for a political horizon: a Palestinian state as part of a ‘two state solution’. Michael Rubin of Labour Friends of Israel argues the circle can only be squared ‘as part of a long game to realise a vision for the region that will ultimately maximise Israeli security’.


Policymakers in the UK rightly view the devastating war that began on 7 October as a turning point that must break the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate and generate momentum towards a two-state solution. Given the horrors of recent months, there is hope that the price paid due to past failures will strengthen the more pragmatic political centre.

In Israel, this war will almost certainly bring seismic political change, with polls indicating a dramatic shift in support from Benjamin Netanyahu to his centrist rival Benny Gantz. According to a January poll by Channel 12, 42 per cent of respondents said Gantz is most suitable to be prime minister, compared to 29 per cent for Netanyahu. At the same time, policy makers must be open-eyed about the social, psychological and political realities. Whoever leads Israel next will have to balance international pressures with the demands of a society profoundly shaken by the Hamas attacks.


For Israelis, 7 October is a traumatic shock that will leave permanent scars. With scores of hostages still captive, and thousands of soldiers mobilised, this is a continuing event that the society is barely beginning to process.

When the fighting stops, Israelis will be left with memories that will forever shape the political culture. The images of cruelty filmed by the perpetrators; the pictures of destruction of the border communities; the faces of the captives and accounts of those released; and the sight of young people fleeing a festival. Alongside these, another simpler image is frequently replayed on Israeli media. It is a pickup truck carrying Hamas gunmen pulling up unchallenged in a neighbourhood of Sderot, a town of 30,000 people.

This image – unfathomable in the moment – represents for Israelis the shock of realising the falsity of assumptions about the state’s security. It triggers the acute fear of those early hours and days, when Israelis everywhere did not know where the terrorists were, and if their families were safe. Its power is multiplied by the knowledge that if Hamas and its allies – including Hezbollah – could massacre every Israeli, they would not hesitate.

This trauma has created two conflicting trends. First, a further collapse in confidence in Netanyahu, already badly damaged by his corruption trial and then the judicial overhaul. Second, an overwhelming public demand that the threats exposed by 7 October be removed from Israel’s borders.

The combination of these trends throws up paradoxes. The Israeli public is extremely hawkish – supporting the war and showing high approval for the IDF – but blames the failures on the most hawkish government in Israeli history. These complex political forces are full of potential for dynamic change, but their outcomes are difficult to predict.


Polls show an overwhelming majority of Israelis want to end the Netanyahu years, which have left Israel polarised, insecure and excessively influenced by far-right extremists. Most want elections as soon as circumstances allow. Anti-government protests are ramping up again, increasingly overlapping with the demand for a hostage deal. If and when a ceasefire is declared, the demand for elections is likely to explode into an irresistible protest movement.

Reflecting this moment of ferment, media, think tanks and, behind the scenes, politicians are polling extensively. Polling during war should be read with particular caution. Opinions are changeable and contradictory. Yet a consistent finding is that in an election, Gantz’s National Unity party could win the largest vote share since Ariel Sharon in 2003, soaring to 35-40 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Netanyahu’s Likud would collapse to 16-20. The coalition as a whole would fall from its 64-seat majority to the mid-40s. Gantz has a massive lead over Netanyahu as preferred prime minister.

While Gantz’s gains are more from Likud, they also come from Yair Lapid’s centre-left Yesh Atid, typically polling in the low to mid-teens, down from its current 24. The picture will go through many changes before an election. Old and new characters may enter the fray, including former prime minister Naftali Bennett. But, based on the current picture, Gantz could form a secular and broadly centrist government with only the support of Yesh Atid and Avigdor Lieberman’s secular, right-wing, Yisrael Beitenu (though he would likely seek a broader coalition).

For Gantz’s supporters, the former IDF chief of staff symbolises security and unity, in contrast to Netanyahu’s polarising populism. Gantz staunchly opposed the judicial overhaul and would likely pursue a more consensual constitutional settlement. His broad appeal relies in part on avoiding divisive positions on the Palestinian question. Nonetheless, as defence minister in the Bennett-Lapid ‘unity’ government, Gantz sought to bolster the Palestinian Authority and build a pragmatic rapport with Mahmoud Abbas, even hosting the president at his home.

Gantz has repeatedly emphasised the importance of current US efforts to promote normalisation with Saudi Arabia, as part of a strategy to strengthen Israel against Iran and replace Hamas with more moderate alternatives. He has not spoken out against a role for the PA or the principle of Palestinian statehood, and has attacked Netanyahu for clashing publicly with the US. Biden administration officials therefore likely hope Gantz could accept Palestinian statehood in principle, as part of a regional package. That hope might be boosted by the rising influence of Gadi Eisenkot, another former IDF chief of staff who is Gantz’s plus-one in Israel’s emergency war cabinet. Eisenkot has continued in this role despite losing his son and nephew fighting in Gaza. He gave an hour-long prime time interview in mid-January sharply critical of Netanyahu. Prior to this conflict Eisenkot has been more candid about the Palestinian question than Gantz, calling for separation from the Palestinians to avoid a bi-national state – code for proactive steps towards Palestinian statehood.

However, calling for a Palestinian state – which implies giving up control in the Gaza Strip and West Bank to Palestinians – was not a vote winner even before 7 October. Until relatively recently, polls showed Israeli support for the two-state concept above 50 per cent, even after the collapse of Oslo and the terrorism of the Second Intifada. Yet many Israelis concluded that in reality there was no viable Palestinian partner, and did not expect their leaders to find solutions. Whilst post-7 October the ‘do nothing’ option is now moribund, the idea of putting Israeli security in the hands of the PA sounds even more clankingly discordant to Israeli ears.

President Isaac Herzog has conveyed this in recent remarks, including at Davos where he said: ‘We don’t shy away from the fact that the Palestinians are our neighbours but if you ask the average Israeli … nobody in his right mind is willing to think about what will be the solution or the peace agreements because everybody wants to know, can we be promised real safety in the future?’

That does not mean Israeli leaders who supported two-states have given up. When pressed in a recent interview Lapid, who reaffirmed his support for two states during his stint as prime minister, said that this should remain Israel’s future goal, but no-one could think it achievable in the short-term.

The hope for two-state advocates rests with Israelis’ determination that there is no going back to ‘conflict management’, pushing the Palestinian question back on top of the agenda. The question, therefore, is how to leverage the failure of the right into a new agenda tying Israelis’ desire for ‘real security’, as the president put it, to building up moderate Palestinian alternatives to Hamas which are willing to recognise Israel’s right to exist, cease terrorism and incitement, and accept a permanent two-state solution, and cementing regional alliances.

A November survey asking about ‘the day after’ found just 5 per cent favoured continued ‘conflict management’. Some 27 per cent supported two states, and 25 per cent unilateral separation, with 28 per cent supporting annexation of Gaza and the West Bank. So whilst support for Palestinian statehood is currently limited, a clear majority reject permanent Israeli control of all the territories.  Other polls suggest explicit support for a Palestinian state is higher when linked to normalisation with Saudi Arabia and a hostage deal (results vary a lot depending on wording). One poll in January found 51 per cent of respondents would support and only 29 per cent oppose an agreement that included a demilitarised Palestinian state, as part of a package including the return of hostages and Saudi normalisation.

This is a source of hope for the centre-left. Another may be the rising profile of Yair Golan, a former IDF deputy chief of staff who represented the left-wing Meretz party in the Knesset until 2022. Golan caught national attention for his heroism on 7 October, grabbing a uniform and rifle and driving south to rescue partygoers fleeing the music festival. Polls suggest a unified Meretz-Labor list under Golan could secure 7-9 seats.

Netanyahu, positioning himself as the opponent of two states in the face of US pressure, is working to secure his base ahead of the showdown to come. He will try at all costs to keep the far right in the coalition and avoid elections. The messianic and ultra-nationalist minority on whom Netanyahu is politically dependent sees this as a time to double down, openly calling for transferring Palestinians out of Gaza and rebuilding settlements. Yet a November survey found Smotrich and Ben Gvir to have the lowest ministerial satisfaction ratings. Whilst Ben Gvir has strengthened a few seats in polls (to around 8) with attacks on Netanyahu from the right, their combined polling is typically lower than their current 14 seats. Smotrich running alone could fall below the threshold.


Long ago many Israelis concluded that giving up territory to Palestinians multiplied security risks. After 7 October the idea that any Palestinian actor can be trusted to control territory on Israel’s borders is scarcely credible to most Israelis.

The hope is that the collapse of the former ‘status quo’ forces Israelis to confront choices that they have been avoiding. Moreover, the endurance of the Abraham Accords and Saudi interest in normalisation is a powerful source of leverage.

The right approach is to build a strong and reformed PA – ultimately a Palestinian state – aligned with moderate Arab forces in the region, to reduce the threat and influence of Hamas and other Iranian-backed extremists.

None of this is easy nor should we pretend that the Palestinians don’t have agency. The PA needs institutional reform, action to tackle widespread and ingrained corruption and the modernisation of the public and security services as outlined by proposed by former prime minister Salam Fayyad; it requires donors to do what they have too long avoided and tackle the PA’s egregious support for incitement, including ‘pay for slay’ and incitement in the school curriculum; and it must involve action to address the abuses of human rights by the PA which are too often commonplace. The reforms which the PA announced last month may be a start, but they fall a long way short of the kind of structural change that will be required if the PA is to win the confidence of the Palestinian people, Israel and the wider international community.

More widely, the normalisation process holds out the prospect of Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, playing a useful role: the PA will be required, as it has not been in the past, to explain to its supporters in the region why it is turning down Israeli proposals. This, in turn, means that reform can’t just be about technical changes (important as they are) as to how the PA is run, but cultural and political change too. In the light not just of 7 October, but of the failures of the Oslo process, the Israeli public will require – at a minimum – that the PA demonstrates it exercises – and will assert – control over a Palestinian national movement that accepts Israel’s right to exist. It must marginalise, reject and prosecute those who advocate or glorify terrorism and violence, not just those who practice it.

In short, we need to remember at all times that, in the search for two states, there are two sides and action will be required from both.

To gain traction among Israelis, it is vital that third-party policymakers frame their proposals in ways that meet, rather than dismiss, Israelis’ fears and legitimate aspiration for ‘real security’. In the short term, no Israeli leader can persuade the Israeli public to accept positions that will appear to increase their vulnerability, regardless of the extent of international pressure or incentives. The renewed push for Palestinian statehood, therefore, must be framed as part of a long game to realise a vision for the region that will ultimately maximise Israeli security.