Diplomacy: Reframing the conflict

Netanyahu: Remove the settlements, all the settlements, and the conflict does not go away.

netanyahu and mitchell 248.88 (photo credit: )
netanyahu and mitchell 248.88
(photo credit: )
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's historian father, Benzion, should be proud. For with all the world focusing very much on the present - on settlements, Iran and where, when and how negotiations with the Palestinians would begin anew - the prime minister took great pains during his four-day trip to London and Berlin this week to emphasize the past. The past surrounded Netanyahu wherever he went; it infused his thinking and his statements. Why was Israel continuing to build in east Jerusalem, he was asked by a BBC reporter at a press conference after meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has taken strong issue with such building. Because of the 3,500-year-old Jewish connection to the city, Netanyahu explained, correcting himself for the sake of historical accuracy a few minutes later - even though the press conference had already moved on - by saying the connection was "only" 3,000 years old. Why was Israel responding so aggressively to the Swedish newspaper article alleging that IDF soldiers killed Palestinians to snatch their organs, he was asked by a Channel 2 reporter at one of three press briefings he gave to the Israeli press. Because of a responsibility to the past, he responded. "I disagree with those who underestimate the significance of that article," he said, adding that Israel had a historic obligation to speak out firmly, decisively and aggressively against such lies. Otherwise, he said, the lies trickle down to the public and spread malignantly. "In the past, tragedies took place because people did not stand up and say enough. Often these things start small and spread," he said. "It is also to deal with matters like this that the country exists." Netanyahu's reading time, as well, is often devoted to the past. The book that he took with him on the plane to London was a biography, picked out for him by his national security adviser, Uzi Arad, on Napoleon Bonaparte. The problem with Napoleon, he said as he - alongside his wife Sarah - greeted reporters on the back of the plane on the way to London, was that he didn't know when to stop, and that this penchant for biting off more than he could chew led him to "eat himself up." (Netanyahu did not volunteer any personal conclusions to be drawn from that example.) Granted, the past looms large whenever a prime minister visits Germany. Indeed, soon after landing in Berlin on Wednesday, where he was received by a German military honor guard and motorcaded through the heart of the city and past Richard Wagner Square, Netanyahu said that every time he came to Germany he was thankful for the good ties that have developed between the countries. But, he added, "I always think not only about the present and the future, but also the past. I don't think it is possible any other way." And it was not only in Germany, where he visited the Wannsee villa where the Nazis meticulously drew up their Final Solution to the Jewish problem, and where he was presented the architectural blueprints for the Auschwitz-Birkeanau camp, was the past a presence. In London as well, Netanyahu's mind - at least that part of his mind that he was willing to open up to the public - seemed to be as much on the past as it was on the future. His one outing, beyond his diplomatic meetings, was to the small offices of the Palestinian Exploration Fund, where he looked at what he said was a "treasure trove" of pictures and documents and geographical surveys of the Holy Land going back to 1865. It was telling that in the hour-long press briefing he held after meeting Brown, about a quarter was spent talking about his visit to the PEF. And although the first inclination was to think Netanyahu was dwelling on the PEF in an effort to distract attention from the "more pressing" issues of the day - his meeting the next morning with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, or a settlement freeze, or Gilad Schalit, or Iran - for this prime minister, the past itself is the pressing issue. FOR NETANYAHU the past very much illuminates the present, and he is a firm believer that to understand the present it is necessary to widen the historical lens. He believes strongly that one of Israel's problems with the international community is that the world does not bring a historical context to the conflict. Much of the world, he maintains, looks at the current struggle it the Middle East and blames the settlements, not realizing that the settlements are a symptom of the conflict, not its root cause. The root cause, he stressed continuously throughout his visit, was the refusal of the Palestinians to acknowledge or recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Remove the settlements, all the settlements, and the conflict does not go away, Netanyahu argued. But if you get the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish homeland, and get them to actually internalize that idea, a different reality could be created altogether. In short, Netanyahu went to Europe this week aiming not only, in his words, to reach some kind of bridging formula with the Americans that would allow a relaunch of the diplomatic process while also enabling the continuation of "normal life" in the settlements, but also to reframe the conflict, to reshape how fair-minded, reasonable people look at it. "I met with the German president," Netanyahu said in Berlin on Wednesday after a brief meeting with Horst Kohler. "I told him very clearly that the root of the conflict is not the settlements, not the borders, not an argument over this piece of territory or that. That is not the problem, or the root of the problem. The root is to recognize Israel as a Jewish state." "I will not let this rest," he said. "I will raise it with presidents, leaders, editors and writers." Netanyahu said that there was a mistaken tendency when talking about the core issues, or the core problems, to refer only to Jerusalem, or the settlements, or the Palestinian refugee issue. The core problem, he said, was always, and remained, the unwillingness of the Arabs or Palestinians to recognize Israel as the national home of the Jewish people. "That is why the conflict started, and why it has continued," he said. "That is the undiluted truth. And if Israel had been saying this for the last 30 years on a daily basis, think what would have been." This Palestinian acknowledgment that Israel is the homeland of the Jews, he said, was the "pivot" of peace. Likening himself to a latter day Copernicus fighting against the mistaken conventional wisdom of the time, Netanyahu said this truth needed to be repeated continuously until it, too, trickled down. If his trip this week was any indication, he will indeed discuss this wherever and whenever possible. Whether it will trickle down, however, is another question altogether.