Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu speech delivered to the US Congress on May 24 held no new ideas or initiatives. Rather, it was a reiteration of the same well-known right-wing positions held by this Israeli government.
What really stood out for us in the Middle East, in fact, were not Netanyahu’s words but the exceptionally enthusiastic reaction of the Congress, which gave him 29 standing ovations–high under any standards. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech earlier this year received only 25 standing ovations. The question puzzling Palestinians was: what is the meaning of this unusual welcome? And what are the implications of this speech on future Palestinian-Israeli relations, including the peace process?
Importantly, Netanyahu’s address came on the heels of two speeches by President Obama, both of them focusing on Israel-US relations and the American role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Indeed, President Obama, in his second speech, was forced to clarify his position calling for a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967 under open pressure from Netanyahu.
Different people focused on different aspects of Netanyahu’s speech. What stood out for me, however, was his reference to the occupied territory of the West Bank as "Judea and Samaria". He said, "In Judea and Samaria, Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. We are not British in India. We are not Belgians in Congo. This is the land of our forefathers, the land of Israel."
Here, Netanyahu appears to be promoting the concept that historical Palestine, including the West Bank (in his words "Judea and Samaria"), belongs to Israel, but because non-Jews, i.e. Palestinians, happen to live there and because Israel wants to maintain a purely Jewish state, he will "agree" to assign parts of Judea and Samaria as an autonomous area for Palestinians. The size of this part will be determined by Israel in accordance with its security needs and might even be called a state. That, in Netanyahu’s eyes, would be the implementation of the two-state solution.
Needless to say, Palestinians are coming from a completely different concept. Israel’s presence in and control of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is illegal. The United Nations referred to it as an illegal, belligerent, military occupation that must come to an end along the 1967 borders in order to allow the Palestinian people to enjoy their basic right of self-determination through the establishment of an independent state.
Netanyahu’s reference to the West Bank as "Judea and Samaria" and "the land of our forefathers" reminds Palestinians that all of historic Palestine was once their homeland, where they lived as a majority for millennia until the last 63 years. The kind of rhetoric that we heard from Netanyahu, backed by the Congress, only reinforces the call of Palestinians, most of whom are refugees, to regain their right to return to their homeland. Netanyahu’s references are completely incompatible with the two-state solution derived from and based on international legality, which sees the 1967 borders as the borders of Israel and the future Palestinian state. Either both parties allow each other to base their vision of the solution on historical and religious considerations (where both sides can argue their connection to historical Palestine) or both parties must agree to compromise their respective rights on the basis of international references.
Israel cannot continue having its cake and eating it, too. Nor can it continue to be selective in how it argues for its needs. The weight of history and religion can either be guaranteed to both sides or compromised by both.
In conclusion, the only way Palestinians were able to explain the unusual reaction of the US Congress is the representatives’ need for money and votes from the US Jewish community in the coming elections. Netanyahu’s speech confirmed our fears that the politics and ideology of this Israeli government and prime minister are not compatible with that of the international community, international legality and the agreed-upon terms of reference of the peace process, including the roadmap issued by the Quartet and adopted by the UN Security Council.
Thus, Palestinians have no choice but to ask for a paradigm shift in handling the conflict, moving from the bilateral approach that Israel is abusing to a multilateral one in the United Nations.