Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech to the joint session of Congress brought political theater to a new height – and the State of Israel to a new low. With his unabashed arrogance and demagoguery on display, Netanyahu’s address effectively slammed shut any window of opportunity for a peace settlement.
Netanyahu had an opportunity to articulate a credible diplomatic initiative that would garner the support of the US, and provide President Barack Obama with the tools necessary to derail the Palestinians’ attempt to gain recognition from the General Assembly. Instead, Netanyahu chose to leave Washington with his country more isolated and scorned than when he arrived.
“Two years ago,” he said, “I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples: A Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state.” Yet actions prove otherwise. Even his rhetorical support for a two-state solution is littered with preconditions intended to create obstacles that will render his “commitment” completely meaningless. Even more, he is careful to state, “I publicly committed,”– not “the government of Israel.” That is because today the government of Israel is clearly not committed to a two-state solution.
Most of Netanyahu’s colleagues, even in his own Likud Party, are unwilling to accept a Palestinian state. In fact, while the current Israeli government works feverishly to deflect efforts to delegitimize the state, its policies serve to delegitimize the Palestinians’ national identity and their aspirations for statehood.
To add insult to injury, Netanyahu went on to invoke something new that has not been stated in this context by any of his predecessors: “I recognize that in a genuine peace, we will be required to give up parts of the Jewish homeland... In Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers.”
This statement disregards the presence of the Palestinian people in the region for generations. Indeed, for how many generations must a people live on a land to call it a homeland? But from Netanyahu’s perspective, the land of Israel belongs to Israel alone and whatever land Israel decides to relinquish would be national sacrifice, but would be done for “the sake of peace.”
Even worse, if Israel is not a foreign occupier, why has Netanyahu not annexed the West Bank and provided the Palestinian population with Israeli citizenship?
THE PRIME MINISTER’S theatrics did not stop there. He proceeded by stating that: “President [Mahmoud] Abbas must do what I have done. I stood before my people, and I told you it wasn’t easy for me, and I said... I will accept a Palestinian state. It is time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say... I will accept a Jewish state.”
These six words will not bring an end to the conflict, as he alluded, but will make for the largest and most unnecessary obstacle that Netanyahu has created since returning to the Prime Minister’s office. Israel has never asked any other country to recognize it as a Jewish state. It was accorded recognition on the basis of its own ethnic self-definition.
Having established, at least in his own mind, the philosophical underpinning of national identity, Netanyahu finally revealed his grand strategy of a future Palestinian state when he declared: “In any peace agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders. The precise delineation of those borders must be negotiated. We will be very generous on the size of a future Palestinian state. But as President Obama said, the border will be different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. Israel will not return to the indefensible lines of 1967.”
Here he offers a minor concession but pads it with insults, rendering his minimal declarations pointless. Achieving a peace settlement will not require Israel to be “generous.” It will require good-faith negotiations to achieve an agreement that both sides can accept.
Furthermore, if the 1967 lines are “indefensible,” what is defensible? Netanyahu does not say. However, this statement follows the manufactured controversy that Netanyahu himself stoked over Obama’s statement that an agreement will require “mutually agreed swaps” along the 1967 lines. Instead of returning to that basis – the only basis upon which a sustainable peace could ever be achieved – Netanyahu has done all he can to delay having to make any real decisions. Furthermore, the truth is that Israel’s incorporation of settlements deep in the West Bank will leave these Israeli communities truly “indefensible,” as they will be surrounded on three sides. In this respect, anything that Israel maintains beyond the major settlement blocs will serve as security liabilities, not assets.
AS NETANYAHU moved to the next critical contentious issue of Jerusalem, he slammed the door shut in the face of the Palestinians when said, “Jerusalem must never again be divided. Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel. I know that this is a difficult issue for Palestinians. But I believe with creativity and goodwill a solution can be found.”
The Palestinians themselves do not want to “divide” Jerusalem per se. They want to keep it united, albeit with a capital in east Jerusalem. When Netanyahu says, “Creativity and goodwill can create a solution,” then what is his idea? Where is his creativity and where is his goodwill? Anyone who is serious about peace should recognize that the City of Jerusalem should remain united, but it cannot remain Israel’s capital alone.
Although Israel has legitimate national security concerns, Netanyahu wants to ensure absolute national security which will leave the Palestinians without any semblance of independence. “So it is therefore absolutely vital for Israel’s security that a Palestinian state be fully demilitarized. And it is vital that Israel maintains a long-term military presence along the Jordan River.”
Whereas a Palestinian state should indeed be demilitarized, there is no way Israel can maintain an absolute presence on the Jordan River, as doing so would be tantamount to a continuation of occupation. But an international presence along the border with Jordan could effectively safeguard Israel’s – and Palestine’s – security. Israel and the Palestinians have already proved that they can achieve successful security cooperation with American support, encouragement and facilitation. They can do so along the Jordan River as well.
UNLIKE IN the rest of his speech, Netanyahu makes important, valid points about the Palestinian refugees: “...the Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved outside the borders of Israel. And worst of all, they continue to perpetuate the fantasy that Israel will one day be flooded by the descendants of Palestinian refugees. They were simply unwilling to end the conflict. And I regret to say this: They continue to educate their children to hate. They continue to name public squares after terrorists.”
Indeed, the Palestinians must begin to prepare their public for a peace agreement. This means beginning to prepare their people for the reality that Palestinian refugees cannot return to the State of Israel. They must also end incitement, and halt the teaching of hate that I have witnessed in Palestinian cities and refugee camps in the region. But Netanyahu must also understand the difficulty this poses politically for the Palestinian leadership. Instead of outrightly conceding this point, it should be sufficient that the Palestinians state their intention to resolve the refugee question in a manner consistent with Israel’s security, in the context of a two-state solution.
Regarding negotiations, Netanyahu cannot have it both ways. “Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by the Palestinian version of al-Qaida,” he said.
But he cannot, on the one hand, claim that the Palestinian leadership is
weak and the public divided, and therefore peace is beyond reach, and
on the other, call the Palestinian unity government “al-Qaida.”
The truth is that Hamas – classified by the West and Israel as a
terrorist organization – is now also a political party. Many political
parties in Israel also reject the mere notion of Palestinian
nationalism, yet they are committed to nonviolence. That should also be
the requirement of Hamas.
Hamas, too, cannot have it both ways. It cannot seek to become a part of
the political process while openly seeking Israel’s destruction and
maintaining its armed struggle.
NETANYAHU CAN only mislead his nation, his US ally and the international
community up to a point. Sooner or later, he must accept that he is
facing a moment of truth: He can lead Israel to greater security,
prosperity and international cooperation and integration, or he can be
the prime minister who watched a tsunami of unprecedented change in the
Middle East sweep into and engulf the State of Israel while he stood by
and did nothing to stop it.The writer is adjunct professor of
international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He
teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.