Reality Check: Netanyahu's loud silence

Israelis don't need speeches from Obama about the state of the region; we need to hear from Netanyahu.

jeff barak 88 (photo credit: )
jeff barak 88
(photo credit: )
US President Barack Obama has been sharply criticized for not talking directly to the Israeli public. Early in his presidency he made an important speech to the Arab world in Cairo - without even making a quick stopover in Jerusalem while he was in the region - and has addressed audiences in Africa, Europe, Russia as well as extending the hand of dialogue to the Iranian people. Israelis want to be loved, and Obama's loud silence was taken by many as a sign of hostility and pro-Arab leaning. Obama's Israeli media critics argued that he should have first sought to charm Jerusalem before attempting to force Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu into agreeing to a settlement freeze. If Israelis felt that Obama was on their side, so the argument went, when push came to shove, the US president would find it easier to press his new Middle East policy on the government, unwilling as it might be to halt West Bank construction. But Obama was right not to reach out to Israel and Netanyahu. First of all, like any new US president, his initial concern was to distance himself from his predecessor and make it clear to all that a new tenant had moved into the White House. Given George W. Bush's warm and cozy relationship with Israeli leaders - to the extent of ignoring Ariel Sharon's and then Ehud Olmert's failures to keep their promises to remove illegal outposts in the West Bank - Obama needed to lay down a strong marker, right at the beginning of his presidency, that he was not prepared to play the patsy. Secondly, by focusing on the settlements and the need for a settlement freeze, Obama reminded Israelis that we cannot eat our cake and keep it whole. Jerusalem cannot insist that it is serious in its search for peace with the Palestinians, while at the same time remorselessly taking over more and more land in the West Bank and harming the possibility of a territorially contiguous Palestinian state. THE PERSON who does need to speak to the Israeli public is Netanyahu. The country's most polished speaker, the politician who is never short of a resonating sound bite, seems to have taken a vow of silence as far as the diplomatic process is concerned. Since his Bar-Ilan speech in June, in which he accepted, with a whole string of conditions, the necessity of a Palestinian state , the prime minister has been astonishingly quiet. During all the negotiations between Washington and Jerusalem over the terms of a settlement freeze, the Israeli public has not been privy to its prime minister's thinking on this issue. The most we know is that Netanyahu, in a typical attempt to have the best of both worlds and empty a settlement freeze of all meaning, wants to quickly authorize the building of 500 new units in the territories before embarking on a "freeze." Before this weekend, the only crumb of information we had concerning his intentions came from a recent meeting between the heads of four West Bank settlements and aides at the Prime Minister's Office, which Netanyahu himself also partially attended. According to minutes of the meeting released by the Prime Minister's Office, the settlement leaders bitterly criticized the government, arguing that for the settlers "there was never such a bad period [as the present]. Before the elections, there was talk of construction in the settlement blocs. Now we are not seeing an end [of this]. Everything is frozen." NETANYAHU'S RESPONSE to the settlement leaders was a masterpiece of ambiguity. According the minutes, he said: "Ultimately, we are all interested in the same thing, but one must act wisely." Just what does the prime minister mean by this? What is the "same thing" we are all interested in? If it is about the need to bring about a two-state solution, then Netanyahu and the settlers are not in agreement. And if by saying that "one must act wisely" he was hinting that he intends to hoodwink Obama and evade any real efforts to find a compromise on a construction freeze, then this weekend's reports of approval for 500 more housing units is put in context. Israel does not need a new PR campaign, as reported in this paper last week, comprising ministers Moshe Ya'alon, Dan Meridor, Bennie Begin and Yossi Peled traveling to the US to meet with political and media figures, policy-makers, campus groups and Jewish organizations in an effort to explain the government's positions. What it does need is a prime minister who is prepared to stand before the public and explain exactly where he intends to lead them. Israelis don't need speeches from Obama about the state of the region; we need to hear from Netanyahu as to whether he is genuinely interested in restarting the dialogue with the Palestinians, which will mean a true construction freeze inside the West Bank. Having passed a two-year state budget, Netanyahu has no political reason to fear the rebels inside the Likud if he truly intends turning the vision of his Bar-Ilan speech into reality. They, and other parties on the Right, will not be able to bring him down over the peace process over the next year-and-a-half. Right now, time is on Netanyahu's side, he owes it to the public to tell them just how, and to what purpose, he intends to use it. The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.