Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech last night can only be classified as a failed public relations exercise, mainly because it catered just to the right-wing constituency that put him in the position he is in.
To all others, without exception, the speech was disappointing. The Palestinians and Arabs reacted angrily. The Kadima party criticized the speech as harmful to the interests of the Israeli people. Further afield, meanwhile, European and American reactions focused on reiterating international demands for a complete cessation of settlement building including so-called "natural growth", something Netanyahu failed to commit to in his speech.
Some reactions dwelt on Netanyahu’s supposed acceptance of the idea of a Palestinian state. But the way he dealt with that issue was farcical. He started by emphasizing his belief that the West Bank and Gaza are part of the historical home of the Jewish people. However, he said, because of the Palestinian presence, Israel had to cede some ground on the Jewish people’s historic rights to those lands. Thus, if Palestinians would recognize Israel as a Jewish state, accept a demilitarized entity, allow Israel and international actors to maintain control over Palestinian borders and air space, accept that Jerusalem be the "undivided" capital of Israel and agree to solve the Palestinian refugee problem outside of Israel’s borders, then he would accept that Palestinians raise their own flag, play their own national anthem and call the areas under their control a state. Not so much Bibi as Bobo, it was a policy address fit for a clown.
The entity that Netanyahu described does not qualify it as a state. In addition, the preconditions he stipulated for its establishment rendered the negotiations process he referred to as meaningful as he meant it to be (and as it has been so far), namely not at all. One of many ironies of his speech is that when he referred to relations between Israel and the Arab countries he was clear in refusing any preconditions. When it came to Israeli-Palestinian relations, the conditions were mounting so quickly that nothing was left beyond them.
Netanyahu’s speech represents a serious challenge to the peace camp in Israel, the peace camp in the Arab world, including among the Palestinians and, more importantly, the new American administration. The main conclusion that can be drawn from the speech is that Netanyahu has given priority to the needs and requirements of his right-wing constituency and treated with a great deal of contempt the requirements and needs of everyone else.
The American administration must now work hard to repair the damage to domestic public opinion in both Israel and among the Palestinians that Netanyahu’s speech has caused. Creating a more conducive public debate and moderating the internal political discourse on both sides is crucial to a successful and meaningful peace process.
That might take time. But stopping the deterioration in the domestic political arenas and reversing the negative trends on both sides are no less important than restarting a negotiations process. Netanyahu’s speech indicates that both the Israeli government and the public it panders to are not mature enough yet to commit to the basic and unavoidable requirements of a successful peace process. Clear messages from the real friends of Israel in the West, accompanied with significant pressure, are now needed in order to encourage the necessary change.
The same, but in a different way, can be said for the internal Palestinian political situation. The trend of radicalization in public opinion and the political division are not conducive to a successful peace process. This also requires the attention of the international community, which must encourage the relevant regional powers to play a more positive role.