Netanyahu has been talking about the imperative of Israeli security control west of the Jordan River. If he were serious about it, he would do something beyond rage against two states.

After Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s insistence last Thursday that anyone speaking about the day after him is actually speaking about a Palestinian state, and that Israel’s requirement to always have security control of all territory west of the Jordan River is fundamentally at odds with Palestinian sovereignty, the debate over what Netanyahu actually meant began to rage. Netanyahu and President Joe Biden spoke for the first time in nearly a month the following day, after which Biden told reporters that Netanyahu had not actually ruled out two states since there are different formulas that might work and implied that Netanyahu would accept a demilitarized Palestinian state. Netanyahu almost immediately countered Biden the next day, tweeting that full security control runs contrary to Palestinian statehood but then recorded a video statement in which he left things more ambiguous by again insisting on full security control but without linking it definitively to the absence of a Palestinian state. As is his wont, Netanyahu seemed unwilling to make a choice, implying to Biden that he is open to Palestinian sovereignty under a certain set of strict security conditions while implying to his domestic political audience that only he can stand in the way of a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu’s focus on security control—as opposed to political control—is a helpful theoretical distinction, and one that other Israeli politicians and officials have spoken about in different contexts, such as when Benny Gantz has demanded that Israel retain security control over the Jordan Valley. In previous rounds of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Mahmoud Abbas has accepted a demilitarized Palestinian state as a way of assuaging Israeli security concerns. The limitations that currently exist on what type of equipment and munitions the Palestinian Authority Security Forces can have—making them more akin to a gendarmerie than to an army—serve as a model for what a demilitarized Palestinian state might look like: capable of acting against internal threats and terrorism but not threatening Israel or other neighbors. General John Allen’s two-state security plan that was developed by the U.S. as part of the 2013-14 negotiations also dealt with the issue of maintaining Israeli security control while giving Palestinians sovereignty in a variety of ways, and some of those ideas were later fleshed out in a public report. The upshot is that people have been thinking for a long time about what it would mean for Israel to retain security control over territory that is part of a Palestinian state, and given that Israelis’ highest desire is for security while Palestinians’ is for sovereignty, figuring out how to separate security control from political control is the key to any path forward.

The view of the Jordan Valley in northern Israel

But despite Netanyahu’s incessant talk of security control, he is not serious about it. He instead uses it in an attempt to rebuild his collapsed image as Mr. Security without putting the concept into practice. Security control cannot be established without real civilian separation; lest anyone have any doubt about that, the terrible events of October 7 should put those doubts to rest. Hamas overran Israeli communities and even military bases because the putative border turned out to be chimerical; Israeli settlements inside of Gaza would not have acted as an effective buffer but would have only made the massacre greater. Eliminating a future Palestinian state’s capability as a security threat to Israel means not only demilitarization, but reducing the friction points that exist, creating a defensible border for Israelis who live behind it, and allowing the IDF to concentrate its energies on the shortest defensive line that is feasible. In thinking about reducing the threat of mortars and cross-border infiltrations from Gaza and Lebanon, the thrust of what Israel is currently doing—creating a physical buffer zone in Gaza to gain distance for Israeli communities in the Gaza envelope, and holding open the option of militarily pushing Hizballah back across the Litani River in compliance with UNSC Resolution 1701 to gain distance for Israeli communities in the north—is about separating the Israeli population from Palestinian and Lebanese populations.

The Israel-Lebanon border

Netanyahu oversees a government that is dedicated to doing the opposite at the first opportunity. His ministers agitate for the reestablishment of Israeli settlements in Gaza. His political allies talk about the enormous amounts of money they want in the new budget to make it easier for Israelis to move to the West Bank in larger numbers, and demand things like the creation of security zones for hundreds of meters in every direction around every settlement and illegal outpost. Netanyahu himself extolls the virtue of Israelis living anywhere and everywhere in the West Bank, putting the Jewish connection to the land—which is indeed an important value—above any and all practical considerations, including security. He talks of the Trump plan as a vision that is compatible with his, despite the fact that its notion of security control involved creating a far longer border between the West Bank and Israel and would have necessitated protection for 17 Israeli enclaves completely surrounded by Palestinian territory. Nearly everything he does and advocates for involves intertwining Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank as much as possible, which is a policy that many on the right support but runs entirely counter to any real or sustainable vision of security control while ensuring permanent Israeli political control. A prime minister serious about retaining security control would look to reduce threats inside of the territory under security control, harden Israel’s military presence around it, and reduce the Israeli civilian population inside it. He would not have said that bolstering and funding Hamas was necessary, since it was in the service of weakening the Palestinian Authority and thereby preventing a Palestinian state.

An Israeli settlement in the West Bank

I am sympathetic to Netanyahu’s allergy to discussing Palestinian statehood now, when Israelis are still literally and figuratively shell-shocked and when trust of Palestinians is at all-time lows while fear of them is at all-time highs. Alon Pinkas rightly points out that constantly bringing up two states given Israelis’ post-October 7 mindset is counterproductive and will backfire, and that it only requires a slight modification of talking about a future Palestinian state or a gradual path to a Palestinian state, as opposed to talking about two states as if it can or should happen right now. But another way of approaching the problem of having to eventually get to two states without being completely out of sync with where Israelis are now is to take Netanyahu’s talk of security control, and turn it back on him. When he says security control, what does that mean beyond insisting on no Palestinian statehood until the end of time? What does security control mean beyond ruling out Palestinian sovereignty? How is it compatible with actual Israeli policies on the ground? What developments will demonstrably improve Israeli security and what developments will make it harder to achieve? Does creating additional security burdens establish security control, or does it give it to some people while eroding it for everyone else?

Rather than harp on Netanyahu’s invocation of security control, the U.S. should use it to its advantage. Make Netanyahu set out a real vision that he has to defend, rather than give him opportunities to spout hawkish platitudes in response to others invoking an idea that Israelis are not emotionally prepared to even consider. Security control is a serious concept that should be taken seriously, and Netanyahu should have to do so.