PM Netanyahu addresses Congress 311 (R).
(photo credit: Reuters)
In his speech to the United States Congress last week, Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu was addressing three target audiences. The least important for
him was the Palestinians.
Netanyahu presumably understands that there is
almost no likelihood of a renewed peace process with the Palestinians in the
months between now and September. Not only does the prime minister not offer
enough to the Palestinians. The same President Mahmoud Abbas who turned down
prime minister Ehud Olmert’s far-reaching offer in September 2008 and
essentially refused until now to negotiate with Netanyahu is not about to back
off from his encounter with the United Nations in the fall.
though Netanyahu ostensibly presented a coherent opening negotiating position
and invited the Palestinian leadership to respond to his “generosity” – an
invitation to negotiate that, in striking contrast, was not forthcoming from US
President Barack Obama in his speeches of the past 10 days – serious talks were
not Netanyahu's purpose.
Rather, he sought primarily to recruit the
support of American and Israeli public opinion. Judging by the unusual if not
ludicrous reception Congress gave him and the findings of the latest Israeli
opinion polls, he succeeded. He even managed in Congress to tone down his
antagonism toward Obama, on the correct assumption that no one in Israel or
America likes to see the kind of threat to the special relationship that
Netanyahu displayed so arrogantly in his latest Oval Office appearance with the
For whatever it’s worth given the barren negotiations
arena, Netanyahu has indeed moved closer to the Israeli consensus on a number of
issues: a viable Palestinian state, giving up “parts of the ancestral Jewish
homeland,” “some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders” while
attaching the settlement blocs to Israel, a mere “long-term military presence
along the Jordan River,” a demilitarized Palestinian state, and rejection of
Hamas as part of a Palestinian government represented by Palestinian
negotiators. But because so large a portion of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition is
to the right of the Israeli consensus, he had to hedge his bets.
Jerusalem has to remain the united capital of Israel – a nonstarter from the
Palestinian standpoint. And hence the rather incredible demand, that seems to
have been ignored in most analyses of Netanyahu’s speech in Congress, that
Israel be allowed under any agreement to hold onto “other places of critical
strategic and national importance.”
IF IT weren’t so depressing, it could be entertaining to imagine how the
Netanyahu government’s supporters play with this phrase in order to assuage
their doubts regarding the prime minister’s apparent readiness to evacuate
settlements to make room for a Palestinian state. Are the “Mayflower”
settlements of Bet El and Ofra of national importance? Is the Machpela Cave in
Hebron? Are one or two high hilltops in the West Bank of strategic importance
because they can serve Israeli military reconnaissance objectives? This
seemingly innocuous throwaway phrase must be to the settlers and their
supporters what a pacifier is to a baby.
“Other places of critical
strategic and national importance” tells us what we really need to know about
Netanyahu’s two-state strategy. It’s about American and Israeli public support,
not about a peace process. The prime minister apparently reasons that,
armed with that support, he will weather the Palestinians’ UN initiative in
September and even weather the growing isolation of Israel and the possible
ensuing intifada, fueled by the flames of Arab revolution all around us and by
Iran and its Islamist allies.
Given the nonexistence of a peace process,
and the looming threats, it makes a lot more sense for both Netanyahu and Obama
to leverage the Palestinian UN initiative into a “win-win” proposition for both
Israelis and Palestinians. Netanyahu is gambling with Israel’s vital
interests smugly, arrogantly – and recklessly.This article was first
published at www.bitterlemons.org and is reprinted by permission. The writer,
coeditor of the bitterlemons family of Internet publications, is former director
of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.