(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's forthcoming policy address at Bar-Ilan University is being touted as a direct response to US President Barack Obama's speech at Cairo University last week. The subject, the issues, the timing and the venue all make a close comparison inescapable. Netanyahu's statement will be scrutinized not only for its substance and craftsmanship, but also for its structure and scope. If he wants to affect perceptions and influence policies beyond his domestic constituency, he would do well not to emulate Obama's unquestionably masterful rhetoric, but to address those ingredients that have made this presentation so truly pathbreaking.
Obama came to Egypt with the avowed intention of launching a paradigmatic shift - one which would offer a comprehensive, innovative and workable vision for the Middle East and the world in the years ahead. This objective is boldly embodied in the title of the text distributed by the White House: "Remarks by the President on a New Beginning." Whatever Netanyahu says this coming Sunday must take into account the fundamentally altered worldview enunciated by the leader of the globe's major power just a few days ago.
The first element of this mind-set is its insistence on strategic thinking, one that sets forth clear goals and seeks creative ways to ensure their realization. Obama came to the Middle East to promote a vision of renewed cooperation between civilizations that would replace the prevailing clash between diverging cultures and traditions - the most profound and immediate impediment to an enduring peace. "The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God's vision. Now that must be our work on Earth."
Netanyahu may yet cast his words in tactical terms this coming Sunday. He can undoubtedly stress the impending nuclear threat posed by Iran, dovetailing part of Obama's ideas on the topic while studiously downplaying others. He will discuss settlements and settlement expansion (to meet the needs of "natural growth"), while promising to ease restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
He could also pay lip service to the road map (whose full title reads: "A Performance-Based Road Map to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict") approved by the Sharon government in which he served as finance minister in the spring of 2003. Or he may revive the government's reservations to the document and the informal understandings reached with the Bush administration. But this mixture of acquiescence, compromise and evasion hardly rises to the visionary breadth or strategic perspicacity required of an Israeli leader at this juncture.
THE SECOND COMPONENT of the Obama worldview is its immersion in democratic values. Commitment to human rights, freedom, equality and the "principle of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings" is a constant in the president's Cairo presentation, as in virtually every other public statement he has made in recent months. These are not mere words: Binding values are integrally linked to a collective responsibility to combat repression, oppression and coercion. The obligation to pursue and uphold these precepts and to use them as the yardstick for policy provides the unshakable normative grounding for policy.
On Sunday, Netanyahu will in all probability echo Obama's reaffirmation of the right of Israelis to a secure existence. Like the president, he will decry violent extremism and reiterate the legitimacy of Israel as a homeland for the Jews, but diverge from him on its Jewish character. But whether he will go beyond a rights-based approach and encompass the formative human values of the Jewish tradition and the responsibilities these entail is another question.
This relates to the third aspect of the Obama framework: the use of history. The president is acutely aware of the past and determined to grapple with its power over the present (as his discussion of the Holocaust so cogently demonstrates). At the same time, in his view acknowledgement of the force of history is not synonymous with enslavement to its frequently divisive outcomes: "So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it."
Netanyahu, bred on the import of history and so conscious of its legacy, can go a long way toward breaking its shackles by adopting the forward-looking attitude that informs his counterpart in Washington.
The fourth, decidedly distinct, feature of the Obama outlook is his interdependent approach to policy-making. Instead of harping on divisive interests at every turn, he highlights cooperation, partnership and linkages. The essence of his policy orientation is to encourage collaboration between vying parties to overcome violence, extremism and injustice - be it within the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Israel-Palestine. The construction of such working coalitions requires recognition of the needs of the other and the demarcation of common ground - a cornerstone of the new discourse. The constant referral to reciprocity in a shared world as the key to ending conflicts and to attaining meaningful prosperity is emphasized in the case of Israelis and Palestinians. "If we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace and security."
NETANYAHU HAS a tremendous opportunity to signal that Israel's interests cannot be pursued at the expense of those of the Palestinians and the Arab world. A few words which evince empathy for the other and sensitivity to their plight, along with a call to move together to forge a different reality, can help dispel suspicions and generate a sincere quest for a lasting accommodation. Such a verbal gesture at the Begin-Sadat Center, especially if framed within the spirit of the Arab peace initiative, would also lay the foundation for a dynamic of partnership so sorely lacking both domestically and internationally today.
This leads to the fifth, programmatic, component of the worldview laid out in Cairo last week. The Obama speech was admittedly thin on concrete initiatives. But the guidelines that were spelled out - on the unacceptability of violence as a policy tool, on the prerequisites for movement of the Israeli-Palestinian front, on the nuclear issue - could not have been more explicit. These are seen as the starting point for constructive action. Netanyahu's challenge is to internalize these prescriptions and move forward from there.
Finally, the new package emanating from Washington is wrapped in a different language and adorned with large doses of candor and hope. Even the most cynical cannot remain indifferent to Obama's call to young people: "You more than anyone have the ability to reimagine the world, to remake the world." The test of Netanyahu's foresight and leadership will be in his ability to adopt this inclusive discourse and align Israel's future with its overarching vision. He can keep Israel in glorious isolation - verifying the resistance, skepticism and suspicion that Obama anticipates - or he can join the president in building a different tomorrow by echoing his sentiments: "We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning."