Analysis: Over to you, Mr. Abbas

By David Horovitz June 15, 2009

In his Bar-Ilan speech, classic Netanyahu, aimed at Washington and the Israeli consensus

For the two-and-a-half months since he was sworn in for the second time as prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu has been uncharacteristically quiet, making few speeches of substance and generally eschewing interviews. On Sunday night, at Bar-Ilan University, he reminded a local and international audience of his articulacy, with an address that will have pleased neither the Palestinians and the Arab world, nor the most ardent supporters of the settlement enterprise, nor the firm Israeli Left – but wasn’t principally aimed at any of them.

His goal, rather, was simultaneously satisfying the Israeli consensus and the Obama administration, and in that, he is likely to have largely succeeded.

Notably speeding up his delivery when he got to the sections of his speech most unpalatable to the hard Right, he first vaguely committed his government to all previous international agreements, but then emphatically espoused the vision of a Palestinian state living at peace alongside Israel, precisely as the new American president would have wished, and reaffirmed that Israel would build no new settlements and take control of no more West Bank land.

His hawkish critics will accuse him of capitulation and of selling out. Netanyahu, after all, is the man who publicly declared in 2002 that a state for the Palestinians would spell the end of a state for the Jews.

But the speaker of 2009 set out two critical caveats. Israel, he made plain, could countenance Palestinian statehood only if, philosophically, the Palestinians publicly acknowledged Israel’s essence as the homeland of the Jewish nation and, practically, if Palestine were demilitarized.

‘We don’t want missiles on our cities,’ he said simply. ‘We want peace.’

And therefore, Palestine would have to be denied an army, the right to import arms, air sovereignty and the capacity to sign military treaties with the likes of Iran.

In a sense, this was a classic display of Netanyahu’s longstanding insistence on reciprocity. You want Israel to support statehood for the Palestinians? he was saying to the Americans. Well, then, give me the guarantees that their independence will not come at the expense of ours.

The demand can hardly strike Washington as unreasonable, and by prefacing it with that support in principle for Obama’s efforts to change our region for the better, Netanyahu at a nuanced stroke lobbed the peacemaking ball back into the Palestinian court. And he moved himself a long way, if not perhaps all the way, from Obama’s list of unsavory ‘obstacles to progress,’ to the place where Israel need always belong, among the potential ‘facilitators of progress.’ Over to you, Mr. Abbas.

The prime minister’s refusal to halt natural growth at existing settlements still leaves him in direct conflict with Washington. But Netanyahu will have privately explained to the Americans that meeting that restriction would not merely counter his own outlook, but also doom his government, and his Sunday night mention of the Gaza disengagement served as a timely reminder of Israel’s demonstrable willingness to dismantle even entire settlement communities – albeit, in Netanyahu’s view, for entirely misconceived reasons.

When Israelis went to the polls in February, many in the mainstream were torn between the conviction that maintaining a Jewish, democratic Israel would require separation from the Palestinians, and the sorry assessment that no such viable separation was possible given abiding Palestinian hostility to the very notion of our sovereign presence here.

Netanyahu’s Sunday night address will have resonated with that Israeli middle ground. And it also corrected some of the lacunas in the Middle East vision expressed in the US president’s June 4 ‘new beginning’ overture to the Muslim world – most especially regarding Obama’s misrepresentation of Israel’s legitimacy as stemming from centuries of Jewish persecution culminating in the Holocaust.

A much anticipated speech, then, that probably achieved much of what Netanyahu hoped it would. But, of course, still only a speech. As Obama will doubtless now be saying to both sides, let’s see some action.

© The Jerusalem Post