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(photo credit: AP)
As an oratorical exercise, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's speech at Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies last Sunday was without doubt a tour de force. Clearly the product of an enormous investment of time and thought, it constituted as cleverly-crafted a statement as any Israeli politician has ever made.
When it comes to practicalities, however, the audit has to be very different. After all, Netanyahu did not announce anything like a program of realistic action that he intends to implement. His agreement to the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state - although certainly of enormous symbolic significance (how many other Likud leaders have ever enunciated the "S" word?) - seems to be entirely devoid of any immediate policy implications.
In this respect, Netanyahu's speech contrasts unfavorably with other great statements of policy in recent international history, some of which have also been aired at academic venues. For instance, the speech that US secretary of state George Marshall delivered at Harvard in June 1947 pronounced the inauguration of the "Marshall Plan" for European postwar recovery; president Kennedy's declaration in 1962 to students at Rice University in Texas that "we choose to go to the moon" was the prelude to the space race; the "Bush Doctrine," enunciated in a presidential address to West Point graduates in 2002, was immediately followed by the onset of the "War on Terror"; and (much closer to home) within less than a year of Ariel Sharon's pronouncement on "disengagement" at the Herzliya Conference in 2004, Israel had unilaterally withdrawn from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria.
BY COMPARISON, Netanyahu seems prepared to do nothing. From his point of view, the onus for action now lies with the Palestinians. It is they who have to fulfill the provisos which hedged around his promise to recognize their statehood. Specifically, they have to set their own house in order and get rid of the "Hamastan" established in Gaza; they have to publicly forgo the right of return; they must accept internationally imposed restrictions on their freedom of diplomatic and military action; above all, they must recognize Israel to be the state of the Jewish people.
The implication - all the more overt for being unspoken - is that until all these conditions are met, the status quo will remain in force. Thus seen, the real purpose behind Netanyahu's speech might have been procrastination. It aimed to place the ball firmly in the Palestinian court, and thus deflect American pressure away from Israel. In return, all he had to do was pay with the cheapest of all commodities - words.
If that was indeed the prime minister's intention, there is a serious danger that his strategy might backfire. This is not simply because (as some in the American media have already warned) President Barack Obama is not so easily fooled and may express dissatisfaction with the fact that Netanyahu's speech made no reference at all to the possible dismantlement of existing settlements in Judea and Samaria - legal or illegal, immediately or at some future date.
More to the point is that in other respects too Netanyahu's speech might have been too clever by half. By abstaining from announcing any substantive and practical initiative, he in fact invites other parties - principally senior members of the American administration - to fill that vacuum by introducing (and then perhaps attempting to impose) programs of their own. The irony of this situation is reinforced by the fact that, unwittingly, the prime minister might in his speech himself have identified sensitive areas in which Israel might be most seriously pressed to make successive and material concessions.
"DEMILITARIZATION" OFFERS an important example. In his speech, Netanyahu categorically insisted that a future Palestinian state will have to be demilitarized, "namely, without an army, without control of its airspace and with effective security measures to prevent weapons smuggling into the territory." In this reading, then, "demilitarization" is to be a consequence of the end of successful negotiations on all other matters. Moreover, it is to be a unilateral undertaking on the part of the Palestinians, implementation of which is to be guaranteed by international monitoring and enforcement.
Recent history provides very few successful precedents for that type of arrangement. While several states have agreed to the demilitarization of portions of their territory (as did Egypt with respect to the Sinai in 1979), very few have agreed to dispense altogether with armed forces.
Moreover, little can be learned from the handful of instances where that has been the case. Most are irrelevant to the Israeli-Palestinian situation. No one in their right mind could claim that Andorra, Luxembourg, Micronesia or even Dominica, Grenada and Haiti - none of which maintain armed forces of their own - would, if they decided to rearm, pose anything like the security threats to their immediate neighbors that the Palestinians do to Israel.
Other international examples must be considered decidedly discouraging from Israel's point of view. After all, even where successful, "demilitarization" has often been temporary (as was the case with West Germany after World War II and with East Timor after 2002). In other cases, it has been very tenuous and by no means a guarantee of good neighborly relations (as is witnessed by the tensions characteristic since February 2008 in relations between Serbia and Kosovo, which has forgone possession of an independent army and relies for its security on KFOR, a NATO-led international force).
Given that record, Netanyahu's vision of a demilitarized Palestinian state sounds like little more than a noble pipe dream at best, and a smoke screen at worst. Precisely for that reason, however, it may induce the Americans to press for the implementation of a form of demilitarization that is based on entirely different understandings of the concept.
Two such alternatives present themselves. First, that demilitarization be considered a process rather than an end result, and hence a vehicle of negotiations on other matters. Second, and by the same token, that demilitarization - far from constituting a unilateral act affecting just one party - be a series of mutual steps, taken by Israelis as well as Palestinians.
Significantly, both interpretations are implicit in the previous agreements that, under US brokerage, Israeli governments have reached with the Palestinian Authority. The Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip (Oslo 2) signed in September 1995 by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat did not only specify the quantity and weaponry of the security forces to be maintained by the PA. It also itemized the various areas (A, B, C) of IDF deployment and redeployment. So, too, did the Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron of January 1997, and the Wye River Memorandum of October 1998, both of which were signed by Netanyahu in his first administration. In each case, curbs were placed not just on the military activities permitted to Palestinians but on those that the Israelis too could pursue in designated localities.
The prominence given by Netanyahu to demilitarization virtually invites the Americans to press for the same pattern to be repeated in a new round of negotiations. Why, they might ask, should only the Palestinians be forbidden to fly military aircraft over their own air space? Shouldn't the same restriction apply to the IAF? Likewise, if the Palestinians are barred from maintaining infantry forces (not to mention heavy armor) in their own state, shouldn't the IDF remove the last vestiges of its own military presence in Judea and Samaria, including its remaining patrols along the area's highways and its bases in the Jordan Valley? Wouldn't such moves function as "confidence building measures" - proofs to the Palestinians that Israel is sincere about granting them independence and inducements for them to provide similarly concrete evidence of the sincerity of their own intentions?
IF INDEED FORTHCOMING, such suggestions - especially if they are wrapped up in barely-veiled threats that noncompliance would generate considerable displeasure on the part of the US president and his immediate entourage - could well confront Netanyahu with at least two serious dilemmas. One could derive from a fear that compliance with demands for a step-by-step process of mutual demilitarization will expose the settler population in Judea and Samaria to increased risks. The second and even more serious dilemma is the suspicion that precisely the same mechanism might bring Israeli-American relations to the brink of crisis.
The first fear threatens to undermine what appears to be a central plank in Netanyahu's overall strategy. In his speech, the prime minister deliberately attempted to downplay the entire settlement topic. Not even indirectly did he take issue with Obama's insistence that some settlements have to be dismantled. Neither did he indulge in the conventional mantra that settlement expansion has at least to keep pace with "natural growth." Instead, he restricted himself to a promise that his government has "no intention of building new settlements or of expropriating additional land for existing settlements." The strategic goal was plain: focus attention on other matters and thus bypass the single issue most likely to bring about a head-on collision with Obama.
Thanks to the emphasis that Netanyahu has placed on demilitarization, this stratagem could well backfire. Understandably, the settlers will argue that any diminution of IDF presence along the highways of Judea and Samaria will endanger their lives and traffic. Even the moderates among them will insist on augmenting their own system of self-defense (itself a recipe for clashes with other armed personnel, foreign as well as Palestinian). The more vehement are likely to accuse Netanyahu of colluding with an American plot to undermine the continued viability of the entire settlement enterprise. As a result, he could well find himself confronting just the sort of coalition crisis that in the week prior to delivering his address he took such obvious pains to avoid.
To this must be added, secondly, the likelihood that Netanyahu's insistence on demilitarization could, unwittingly, bring about precisely the sort of clash with the Americans that he also clearly wishes to avert - and, indeed, that he has to avoid to ensure their cooperation over the Iranian threat.
By way of illustration, let's assume that Obama does indeed choose to interpret demilitarization in a way that requires Israel to take interim steps in tandem with the Palestinians, beginning with a promise to respect Palestinian air space. A response that any such move would endanger Israel's basic security is hardly likely to be considered valid. Surely, it will be argued, the IDF has at its disposal a sufficient range of supplementary surveillance devices and land-based precision-guided missiles to dispose of any suspicion that a ban on overflights will seriously impair its ability to control whatever is happening on the ground in Palestine.
Likewise, Israel can hardly refuse to accept assurances that the insertion of an international force - a possible second step in the demilitarization process - will monitor Palestinian compliance with agreed limitations on the size and character of their gendarmerie. After all, Netanyahu himself made "international assurances" concerning demilitarization one of his conditions for Palestinian statehood. All that the Americans would demand is that he brings forward that plank in his platform to an earlier date than he presently envisages. Would any Israeli government dare to squabble with the US over what could be made to appear little more than a matter of timing?
WINSTON CHURCHILL, who certainly knew a thing or two about the impact of great speeches, never tired of pointing out their limitations. Subsequent to the British withdrawal from Dunkirk in 1940, for instance, he admitted that not even his own stirring rhetoric ("We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.") could assure victory. In the last analysis, words are only effective when they motivate action.
One can only hope that Netanyahu bears that message in mind. For the moment, his speech has certainly served its purpose, enabling Israel to scramble to the top of the diplomatic pile. To stay there, the government now needs to formulate a program of practical steps, conducive to the acceleration of Palestinian independence and thus to the amelioration of suspicion that Netanyahu didn't really mean what he said. Failure to do so will simply allow others to grasp the initiative, possibly by finding in his words meanings that he certainly never intended, and of which he may have been unaware.
The writer is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.