The limits of rhetoric

Netanyahu’s stirring phrases may have boosted his standing in the opinion polls, but opinion polls do not change reality.

By
May 29, 2011 23:43
4 minute read.
Jeff Barak

Jeff Barak headshot 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)

It’s a sad commentary on the state of Israel’s opposition, but the best response to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech last week came not from opposition leader Tzipi Livni or from anybody on the Left, but from former prime minister Ehud Olmert.

Taking time out from his legal troubles, Olmert penned a rebuttal in this past weekend’s Yediot Aharonot that was as elegant and incisive as Netanyahu’s speech was polished and grandiose. Of course, the former premier praised Netanyahu’s delivery, and shared in the pride most Israelis felt in seeing their leader cheered to the rafters in a joint meeting of the US Congress, but he then made that most vital of points, which seems to have been missed by those carried away by Netanyahu’s rhetoric: Speeches are no substitute for a peace policy.

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A
nd one shouldn’t be fooled by all those standing ovations Netanyahu received. As US Congressman Gary Ackerman, who was no slouch when it came to jumping to his feet to applaud the prime minister, later noted in an interview: “Israelis are living in denial... If you continue to do nothing [in terms of negotiating with the Palestinians], you will be in deep trouble.”

Putting Netanyahu’s speech into perspective, Olmert correctly argued that, first of all, US President Barack Obama’s recent Middle East speeches did not represent any change in American policy: Any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would have to be based on the 1967 borders plus agreed-upon land swaps, and this is also the view of the rest of the Western world.

Netanyahu’s shriek of gevalt at the very mention of 1967 borders shows just how far he really is from any serious discussion with the Palestinians. And while the prime minister’s remarks on Jerusalem – “Jerusalem must never again be divided. Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel” – garnered a rousing round of applause in the House and played well with the Likud central committee members at home, more sober observers realize this is a non-starter.

As Olmert writes: “All the countries of the enlightened world, as well as the overwhelming majority of the American public, support the separation of the Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem from Israeli sovereignty.

This is inevitable, and it’s also the right move for those who wish to maintain Israel’s capital as a Jewish city. There is no escaping it.

As Jerusalem’s former mayor, I know this well, and it’s possible. Those who refuse to discuss it terminate the chances for a peace process. One can speak nicely, stir up rightist radicals and draw applause from the settlers, yet this will not bring peace, genuine negotiations or global understanding [of Israel’s position].”

INDEED, NETANYAHU’S remarks on Jerusalem slammed the door shut on any hope that his government had the slightest intention of entering into negotiations with the Palestinians. His stirring phrases might have boosted his standing in the opinion polls, but opinion polls do not change reality.

And the reality is bleak. Come September, the majority of the international community will recognize a Palestinian state at the United Nations, leaving Israel isolated. Instead of using his Washington platform to signal that Israel is ready to enter meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, and thus disarm the Palestinian threat of a unilateral move toward independence, Netanyahu chose to highlight those issues – Jerusalem and a long-term Israeli military presence along the Jordan River, for example – which deepen the rifts between us and our neighbors.

Time is not on our side. The demographic balance between Jews and Arabs from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River is steadily worsening; if Israel is to remain a Jewish and democratic state, it has no option but to act, and act quickly, burying the dreams of a Greater Land of Israel and agreeing to the establishment of a Palestinian state on land conquered by the IDF in 1967.

NETANYAHU IS not the only prime minister who knows how to speak American. Golda Meir also grew up in America (in Milwaukee), and she, like Netanyahu, had an uncompromising vision for Israel’s future. This led to her refusing to acknowledge Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s initial peace overtures in the early 1970s, resulting in the disaster of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

It’s the job of Israel’s opposition to point out the dangers of Netanyahu’s ways – a task in which it is failing. As head of Israel’s largest party, Livni should be seeking to differentiate Kadima from the Likud at every possible opportunity, providing a clear and alternative path to the one Netanyahu is following. Instead, her presence is hardly felt and her party is stuck in irrelevance, leaving a situation in which both the government, through its actions, and the opposition, through its inaction, are failing the country.

There can be no worse combination, particularly at a time as sensitive as this.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.


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