05/24/2013 02:06 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2013

Netanyahu Must Clarify Government's Stance on Two States

As Secretary of State John Kerry labors to launch a new Israel-Palestinian peace initiative, it is legitimate to ask how firmly the government of Israel still believes in a two-state solution.

Polls show that a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution, 62 percent in one recent survey, and a majority in the Knesset elected in January also backs this policy. But that view may not prevail inside the narrower ranks of the coalition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's center-right government, formed in March, consists of four parties in addition to his own Likud of which one, Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) certainly does not believe in making peace with the Palestinians on the basis of a two-state solution.

Additionally, Netanyahu himself is virtually the only prominent member of Likud who still states an allegiance to a two-state solution. The majority in his party, the largest in the coalition, has moved well to the right and believes that Israel should establish and proclaim permanent sovereignty over the West Bank.

The two-state solution was not part of the coalition agreement the parties struck before taking power and it is not mentioned in the statement of principles on the official website of the Israeli prime minister's office.

In regard to the peace process, that document merely states: "The Government will advance the political process and act to promote peace with all our neighbors, while preserving the security, historic and national interests of Israel."

Differences over the two-state solution erupted in public this week at a meeting of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the point person for negotiations with the Palestinians, was interrupted by members of the coalition who made it clear she was not speaking for them.

"Two states for two peoples might be Netanyahu's position, but it is not the official government position. It is not part of its basic guidelines," said Orit Struck of the Bayit Yehudi. "It is our land."

Early in the discussion, the Likud's Reuven Rivlin asked Livni: "Does the government already have a uniform position regarding Secretary of State John Kerry's initiative? It seems there are substantial divides inside the government."

It's a legitimate question which requires a speedy and authoritative answer from Netanyahu himself. It is not enough to say that he personally supports a two-state solution of that he wants peace or that he is anxious to see a resumption of negotiations. He is not negotiating as a private individual. He is the head of a government representing his nation - and he needs to express himself as such.

Of course, the Israeli political system has a tradition of not speaking with a single voice. In 2010, then Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman used his country's address to the United Nations General Assembly to directly contradict Netanyahu, his prime minister. Netanyahu's office quickly disowned his remarks.

As the New York Times commented at the time: "To get a sense of how unusual Mr. Lieberman's comments were, imagine what Americans would be saying if his counterpart, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, stood up at the U.N. and said that the Obama administration's policy of imposing sanctions on Iran was useless and military strikes would be a better idea."

One may acknowledge the lack of discipline in Israeli coalition politics as a fact of life but clearly the phenomenon is deeply destructive both to Israel and to any potential peace process. It undermines faith in Israel as a negotiating partner to know that Netanyahu may only represent part of the government and less than half of his own party. The question can be legitimately raised: on whose authority is he negotiating if not that of the entire cabinet?

Israel's continued settlement activity, which this week prompted a direct rebuke from Kerry to Netanyahu, has much the same deadening effect, destroying confidence that the government is sincere.

It seems clear that even if talks with the Palestinians do resume, the Israeli coalition in its current form will be incapable of bringing about an agreement. Naftali Bennett, head of the ultra-nationalist religious Bayit Yehudi party, is only going along with Netanyahu and Livni's efforts because he is convinced they won't go anywhere.

Others in the coalition may seek to stretch out negotiations as long as possible without ever getting anywhere because they believe this will ease international pressure on and isolation of Israel. They are likely to be disappointed. The Obama administration has signaled it has no intention of going along with talks for the sake of talks.

Any Israeli government can tolerate a degree of ambiguity and dissent - but not on a question as fundamental as this. To boost Israel's credibility in the peace process, Netanyahu should impose discipline, making it clear that the entire government is behind his two-state policy and inviting those who oppose him to do so from the ranks of the opposition where they belong.