Diplomacy: Prime time for the prime minister

The goal of Netanyahu's address was greater than merely to appease the US; it's his own house he was trying to keep intact. And it seems that so far he's succeeding.

netanyahu bar ilan address 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu bar ilan address 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
The Arabs hated it. The Europeans were, well, underwhelmed. And the Americans quickly pocketed what they liked, and disregarded the rest. So, was Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's carefully crafted speech at the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar-Ilan University on Sunday night - a speech in which he said yes to a demilitarized Palestinian state, yes to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, but no to a complete settlement freeze - a dismal failure? OK, Hosni Mubarak, the president of the Arab Republic of Egypt, said the call to recognize Israel as a Jewish state "makes the situation more complicated and aborts the chances of peace." Correct, Carl Bildt, the foreign minister of Sweden, which will take over the EU presidency on July 1, called the speech a "small step forward," sarcastically adding that "whether what he mentioned can be defined as a state is a subject of some debate." Indeed, inside the EU, some were simply aghast that Netanyahu insisted that the Palestinians not have complete control over their airspace or borders. True, US President Barack Obama said there was "positive movement" in the speech, alluding to the acceptance of a Palestinian state, but was quick to reiterate his call for a complete settlement halt, something repeated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her press conference Wednesday with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. But forget about Mubarak, Bildt and Obama for a minute. The vast majority of Israelis liked what Netanyahu had to say and - in the final analysis - the Israeli public was his primary audience. In fact, getting the public to agree with him was even more important for Netanyahu than getting a thumbs-up from Obama. And, at least according to two different polls commissioned by newspapers with two completely different views of the prime minister, the public overwhelmingly agreed with what he had to say. A poll in Tuesday's Haaretz, not exactly Netanyahu's cheering section, found that 71 percent approved of the speech. And a poll in Yisrael Hayom, which is his home turf, found that 61% approved of the positions outlined in the address. Those results are not insignificant, because if - as many are now predicting - the country is in for a tough ride with the US, to say nothing of friction with the Arabs and tension with the Europeans, it is important for Netanyahu to have the public believing that his positions are not unreasonable. BOTH EHUD Barak and Ariel Sharon, when each was prime minister, realized the importance of finding the widest common ground among the public in order to fend off challenges from abroad, be they military or diplomatic. In September 2000, after the collapse of the Camp David talks and just days before the beginning of the second intifada, Barak - in an interview with The Jerusalem Post - repeated something that he had being saying for months: that if all failed, the world, but especially Israelis, would know that the country did everything it could for peace. In Barak's calculation, this was of supreme importance, because if the country had to fight, or had to face a degree of diplomatic pressure, it was important for the public to see that this was not something self-inflicted, but rather imposed by unreasonable demands from the outside. "We are in the middle of very important diplomatic discussions, and we do not know how they will end," Barak said at the time. "The government has a historic responsibility to do everything it can, to leave no rock unturned, to see if it is possible to reach an agreement. If it is possible to reach an agreement which will not damage our other interests, we will do it. If not, then at least the world will be with us - a big part of the world - and at least our people will be united." While the world did not rally behind Israel to the degree Barak expected, the public - at least - was pretty united about the need to fight terrorism with a strong hand, believing that the government had indeed dangled before the Palestinians an extremely generous offer, one which was violently rejected in the form of waves of suicide bombers. This internal solidarity, if not necessarily national political unity, was key in the mind of Sharon as well, and it lasted well into 2003, outlasting Operation Defensive Shield and the IDF's return to the West Bank - and all the world condemnation that engendered. To a certain degree, Sharon's launch of the disengagement plan in 2003 was an attempt to maintain the internal cohesion which he deemed so important to fight terrorism. If you are going to demand sacrifices of your people, he reasoned, you are going to need them to believe that you have tried everything to fend off calamity. From the first moment he was elected in 2001, Sharon said that one of his two key strategic assets in fighting the battle against terrorism was unity at home, a feeling by the people that the country was in the right. The other key strategic asset was an understanding ear in Washington. The disengagement plan, to a large extent, was born out of an attempt to keep that unity at home, and to maintain an understanding ear in Washington. In late 2003, when Sharon launched disengagement, he scanned the horizon, and what he saw concerned him. For the first time since October 2000, there were serious schisms appearing in Israeli society regarding the means being used in the war on terrorism. Then MK Avraham Burg wrote a damning letter, widely publicized abroad, condemning the government's polices; reserve pilots were saying they would refuse to carry out certain missions; commandos threatened not to serve in the territories. In short, there was a rising tide of discontent. The solidarity, the internal cohesion, that was so important for a country engaged in a bitter and violent battle, started to fray at the seams. At the same time, Washington was beginning to show impatience with Israeli actions, best demonstrated by the way it embraced Yossi Beilin's Geneva Initiative. Sharon saw that things were changing, so he unleashed disengagement which - if nothing else - convinced much of the public, and the Bush administration, that his government was trying everything for an arrangement. That then bought him more leeway in doing what he thought needed to be done to fight terrorism. NETANYAHU, TOO, is neither blind nor deaf. His huge government is a testament to the importance he places on political unity. His acceptance of a Palestinian state, even if demilitarized, is an indication that he realizes the importance of America. But more than that, his speech Sunday night indicated the premium he places on Israeli solidarity. If, indeed, his government is on a difficult course with the Obama administration, at least the country needs to believe that what he is asking is well within the consensus, or - as Yasser Arafat would say - "We are not asking for the moon." And, indeed, both a demilitarized state and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state - even continued settlement construction inside the large settlement blocks - is well within the national consensus. The Yisrael Hayom poll showed that 58% of the public opposes the US demand for an end to all settlement construction, including natural growth, while only 30% supports that demand. Solidarity is important for another reason, as well - as a way to fend off pressure. There are those out there, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who believe that the Netanyahu government won't last, that US pressure will build until the people bring him down. There are those who genuinely believe that despair-laden front-page articles in Haaretz by David Grossman and Yossi Sarid reflect public opinion, and that this will move the country's leaders. Indeed, The New York Times reported last month that there was a widespread belief within the Obama administration that any Israeli prime minister risks political peril if the electorate views him as endangering the country's relationship with the US. But they all may be misreading the public, which overwhelmingly voted for the Right in the last election and which, according to the recent polls, doesn't think that the lines Netanyahu has drawn are ridiculous or irrational. Many heard Netanyahu's speech Sunday night and thought he was playing to Obama, that his narrative of the Jewish people's ties to the land and the chronicle of missed opportunities by the Palestinians was meant for the new president's ears. And, indeed it was - but not exclusively. These words were also meant - maybe even primarily - for the public. If you are going to spar now with the world, you have to have your own people in your corner. Netanyahu's address seemed designed, first and foremost, to get them there.