Netanyahu's ambiguity

In setting out his conditions for the creation of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu left many questions unanswered.

Netanyahu Somber Speech 311 (photo credit: Moshe Milner / GPO)
Netanyahu Somber Speech 311
(photo credit: Moshe Milner / GPO)
‘Ambiguous’ is perhaps the best description of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech to the Knesset on Monday. In setting out his conditions for the creation of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu left many questions unanswered. He emphasized the inviolability of large settlement blocs. But he refrained from clarifying what constitutes a settlement bloc. Nor did he clarify the fate of tens of thousands of law-abiding citizens who under state authorization live in settlements not included in these blocs. Netanyahu reiterated the need for an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley along the border. But he did not say whether settlements in that area would stay put, alarming those Israelis who have resided in the valley for the past four decades. The prime minister talked of a unified Jerusalem. But he did not say what would be the status of predominantly Arab neighborhoods in the capital.
Netanyahu’s ambiguity is the result of a desire to avoid a coalition crisis with his right-wing partners while keeping open the outside chance of resolving the conflict with the Palestinians and thus averting an international diplomatic crisis come September, when the UN General Assembly is expected to vote on a declaration recognizing a Palestinian state along the 1949 armistice lines.
The Palestinian leadership has given Netanyahu little reason to be more explicitly forthcoming. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas squandered a 10- month building moratorium imposed by Netanyahu under US pressure last year, refusing to negotiate until Month 10. Now, there are claims Abbas would be willing to postpone the push for a UN declaration in exchange for a three-month building freeze, a less-than credible assertion given the previous experience, and irrelevant since Netanyahu has made plain he will not negotiate so long as Abbas maintains the new “unity” partnership with Hamas.
If the “reconciliation” deal showed Abbas capitulating, willingly or otherwise, to extremists committed to destroying Israel, his recent rhetoric marks a further departure from the parameters of potential partnership with Israel.
The “Palestine Papers,” leaked in January to Al-Jazeera, indicated a willingness by Abbas to resolve Palestinian refugee claims in a new Palestine rather than insisting on the impossible demand for a “right of return” for millions to Israel. “On numbers of refugees, it is illogical to ask Israel to take 5 million, or even 1 million – that would mean the end of Israel,” he was quoted as saying. There was also an apparent willingness to recognize most Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem. The Palestinians’ overall positions on settlements and land swaps, as revealed in those leaks from their negotiations with the Olmert government, were not hugely encouraging, falling short of the widely assumed framework for a territorial accommodation. But they did form the basis for continued dialogue.
Yet when these positions were leaked, PA officials were livid, claiming alternatively that the reports were “lies,” “misrepresentations” and/or part of a conspiracy theory to bring down the PA. And since then, Abbas has hardened – intensifying international outreach in support of unilateral statehood (a path, that is, to independence without reconciliation), partnering with Hamas, recommitting to the “right of return” and, this week, firmly supporting “Nakba Day” riots against sovereign Israel, praising those who were killed (mostly, it would seem by Lebanese forces) trying to overrun Israel’s borders as “martyrs.”
In an op-ed that appeared in Tuesday’s New York Times Abbas carefully distorted the history of the conflict, including by neglecting to mention that it was the Palestinians’ rejection of the 1947 UN partition plan that prevented the creation of a Palestinian state. He demanded that, come September, the international community keep “the promise it made to us six decades ago” and ensure “that a just resolution for Palestinian refugees is put into effect,” as though it had been the “international community” and not the Palestinians themselves who failed, and continue to fail, to internalize the Jewish nation’s right to statehood and thus to make the necessary compromises for coexistence.
Netanyahu's vagueness is not helpful to Israel’s broader interests: In the absence of a detailed Israeli initiative, or at least a more specific delineation of red-lines, the international community lacks a clear sense of what Israel considers its vital needs, and the temptation grows to impose terms that, by definition, will be more problematic than those Israel would set for itself. Yet in the climate created by Abbas’s increasingly rejectionist tilt, it is no great surprise that Netanyahu opted for maximal ambivalence and minimal internal coalition friction.
It is to be hoped that he offers more details of what he regards as Israel’s vital needs in his various addresses and meetings in Washington in the coming days.