Peace was one of the first words Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uttered when he swore in his fourth government in May 2015.The word barely passed Netanyahu’s lips, however, when the opposition literally broke into loud laughter at the idea that this long-ruling, hawkish, right-wing Likud leader planned to “strive for peace.”“What peace? What peace are you promising?” Joint List MK Masoud Ganaim shouted out. Ganaim never received a response. That’s because the simple four-word pledge, “to strive for peace” was all Netanyahu had to say on the subject. His 12-minute speech at the podium, replete with interruptions, was his briefest prime ministerial Knesset address welcoming in a new government.At the time, less than a year had passed since the 2014 Gaza War. The peace process with the Palestinians was in shambles. Netanyahu was fighting a failing battle to halt the US-Iran deal. It was a low point for Israeli diplomacy – so much so, that Netanyahu didn’t even bother to lay out an agenda for it.What a difference five years makes.This time around, the opposition didn’t laugh as Netanyahu spoke of peace. Instead they shouted about occupation and apartheid.In Washington these days, the US is careful to speak of a peace process, keeping alive the hope of Israeli-Palestinian talks.
But no such ideas were alive in the Knesset on Sunday.Gone were past, hopeful visions of regional peace. Netanyahu didn’t link peace to security, economics, territorial concessions or even talks with the Palestinians.Rather, for the first time, he connected peace with sovereignty over the West Bank settlements.Upon entering office in 2009, Netanyahu spoke of how Palestinians must recognize Israel as the national homeland for the Jews. Now, he went further and spoke of the need for a peace process based in truth.The truth he spoke of on Sunday was recognition of the historic and biblical ties of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, including the West Bank, known in the Bible as Judea and Samaria.“Here’s the truth: These tracts of land are regions where the Jewish nation was born and grew,” Netanyahu said. “It’s time to apply Israeli law to them and write another glorious chapter in the annals of Zionism.”To underscore the idea of peace as being first and foremost an act of Jewish reclamation, Netanyahu, for the second time in a row, made no mention of regional peace or the importance of the Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties, as he and his new government head down the political road.
TO UNDERSTAND the dramatic revolution that the Israeli language has undergone with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – as well as Netanyahu’s own diplomatic philosophy – one would have to head back to his first swearing in ceremony in July 1996, the era of former US president Bill Clinton, when the Oslo Accords were in full swing and a two-state solution was a given.Even back then, when Netanyahu spoke of negotiations with the Palestinians, he was careful to link peace to security, mentioning the words some 17 times each. He alluded to Palestinian statehood and possible territorial concessions, without actually naming them.“I would like to turn from here today to our neighbors in the Palestinian Authority and say to them: ‘On this basis of preserving security, we are ready to open with you a true partnership of peace, good neighborliness and cooperation,” he said.“The Israeli government will negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, provided it fulfills all of its obligations. The negotiations will address both the issues involved in the implementation of the interim agreements and the issues of the final status agreement, which will allow both parties to live in peace with security,” Netanyahu said.Netanyahu devoted even more time in his speech to regional peace, calling for peace with all Arab leaders, including Syria’s. He also spoke of the need to deepen relations with Egypt and Jordan, and to strengthen ties with other Arab states.Netanyahu returned to power in March 2009, just as former US president Barack Obama was settling into the White House – and the pressure was on him to show that he meant business when it came to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.He followed former prime minister Ehud Olmert of the Kadima Party, who had spoken of a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines and had negotiated with the Palestinians on that basis in the failed Annapolis process under former US president George Bush.Olmert swore in Israel’s 31st government in May of 2006 by presenting the settlers as stumbling blocks to the peace process, hinting at further unilateral evacuations in the style of the 2005 demolition of 25 settlements, of which 21 were in Gaza and four in northern Samaria.“We must focus on the area in which a Jewish majority is secured and ensured,” Olmert said. “The disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria was an essential first step in this direction, but the main part is still ahead. The continued dispersed settlement throughout Judea and Samaria creates an inseparable mixture of populations which will endanger the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state.”
IN CONTRAST, Netanyahu has never accepted the pre-1967 lines as a basis for the peace process. His March 2009 speech, coming just three years after Olmert’s, sounded like a right-wing dose of cold water for left-wing 67-line enthusiasts, even though he said many correct things.The importance of Israel’s regional ties with Egypt and Jordan was underscored and the word peace was mentioned some 10 times.Unlike Olmert, Netanyahu spoke only of economic peace with the Palestinians and security, with a promise to hold negotiations with the PA.“We strive to assist with the accelerated development of the Palestinian economy and in developing its economic ties with Israel,” the prime minister said. “We will support a Palestinian security mechanism that will fight terror, and we will conduct ongoing peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, with the aim of reaching a final status arrangement.“We have no desire to control another people; we have no wish to rule over the Palestinians,” he continued. “In the final status arrangement, the Palestinians will have all the authority needed to govern themselves, except those which threaten the existence and security of the State of Israel. This track – combining the economic, security and political – is the right way to achieve peace,” he said.“All previous attempts to make shortcuts have achieved the opposite outcome and resulted in increased terror and greater bloodshed. We choose a realistic path, positive in approach and with a genuine desire to bring an end to the conflict between us and our neighbors,” Netanyahu stated.That speech was followed by his June Bar-Ilan speech in which he recognized a de-militarized Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state. In November, he agreed to a US-imposed 10-month moratorium on all settler building starts as the Obama administration attempted and ultimately failed to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.The pinnacle of this left-leaning swing was reached in the 2013 speech for the 33rd government, which was sworn in just prior to Obama’s trip to Israel to jump-start the frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process.It was a speech that sounds, in hindsight, as if it was tailored to soothe the ear of a president who expected territorial concessions from Israel in exchange for peace.“Israel’s new government will work to promote peace and stability in the region,” Netanyahu said. “We are committed to the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. They are the anchors of stability in the Middle East and should be vigilantly preserved. This is our policy. It must be our neighbor’s policy as well. I believe this will be the case in the coming years.“Israel’s new government extends its hand in peace to our Palestinian neighbors,” he continued. “Israel has proven time and time again that it is prepared to make compromises in exchange for peace. Today’s situation is no different. Faced with a Palestinian partner willing to negotiate in good faith, Israel will be ready for a historic compromise that will end the conflict with the Palestinians once and for all.“It will not be easy, and the demands cannot solely be made on Israel. In order for it to succeed, there must be reciprocal demands,” the prime minister concluded.
SEVEN YEARS later, historical truth had replaced historic compromise for Netanyahu, when he spoke of the settler rights as a fundamental component of any peace deal with the Palestinians.He spoke out less than a week after a visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, saying: “The hundreds of thousands of settlers in Judea and Samaria, who are our brothers and sisters, will always remain where they are in any permanent peace agreement. The time has come that our neighbors the Palestinians and the people in this house will recognize this.”To the hard-line sovereignty proponents, Netanyahu’s words were welcome but not strong enough. Nor did they address the growing concern that talks of sovereignty masked a process that would lead to Palestinian statehood.At issue are two brief lines by Netanyahu, one in which he spoke of the application of Israeli law in the West Bank and the other in which he took credit for the annexation drive, stating, “The whole topic of sovereignty is feasible because I personally worked to advance it for three years.”Still, they mark what is likely the first time that the prime minister has spoken of West Bank sovereignty at such an event at the swearing in ceremony.When Netanyahu last headed the government, he had yet to embrace sovereignty. All statements he made on the topic were in the context of an election campaign or as an interim head of state.On Sunday, Netanyahu spoke as the actual head of state, setting the agenda for his new government. His use of the word sovereignty, void of any reference to a peace process, marks a moment of further historic transition from the age of negotiation to the epoch of unilateralism – which is rebranding the approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.