There is something pathetic about the evolution of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s policy speech at Bar Ilan University on Sunday. He and his advisers apparently decided they had to reply to US President Barack Obama’s Cairo University speech earlier this month using the very same format of an address at an academic institution. Worse, they obviously first decided that the prime minister must make a major policy speech to address Obama’s demands, and only afterwards began to discuss the policy innovations Netanyahu would present.
In contemplating how to respond to the pressure felt from Washington regarding settlements and a two-state solution, Netanyahu could look back on a long and diverse history of Israeli responses to American pressure–responses that roughly fit into three categories. 1) Defiance: PM Menachem Begin responding to President Ronald Reagan in 1981: "What do you think we are, a banana republic?" 2) The bypass option: PM Ariel Sharon initiating unilateral disengagement from Gaza a few years ago in order to avoid dealing with Israel’s roadmap obligations (for Netanyahu, the equivalent could be a dynamic initiative to negotiate with Syria). And 3) compliance after crisis: PM Yitzhak Rabin only agreeing to US terms for a second disengagement agreement with Egypt in 1975 after Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had declared a punishing "reassessment".
Netanyahu seems to have opted for a fourth option: give everyone–the US administration, his coalition, the Palestinians–a little of what they want. Confuse them, too. But also do something dramatic to satisfy the Americans.
Netanyahu devoted the better part of his speech to describing the Israeli-Palestinian sphere as he would like to see it: economic prosperity brought on by Arab investment will lay a firm foundation for peace; Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people is a sine qua non for peace; and (a new demand) international guarantees are required to ensure that the Palestinians don’t endanger Israel. All this, to reassure his coalition.
If all these conditions are met, he allowed, "we will be prepared. . . for a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state. . . . two people, side by side, each with its flag and its anthem." Then came a few more conditions: Jerusalem has to remain "united as the capital of Israel" and there will be no return of refugees to Israel.
None of this prevented Netanyahu from also offering the Palestinians negotiations without preconditions. Surely I’m not the only one who got confused. While both Palestinians and the Obama administration can consider the prime minister’s readiness to use the term "Palestinian state" as a step forward, they can hardly view Netanyahu’s overall approach as an appealing platform for renewing negotiations.
This is certainly the case when it comes to the settlements issue. Netanyahu vowed to allow construction for "natural growth" and never mentioned the outposts or, for that matter, the roadmap that demands a settlement freeze. In Cairo, Obama staked his prestige on his demand for Israeli compliance over settlements; this is not what he wanted to hear on Sunday. True, Netanyahu wisely avoided dwelling on the Iranian threat, thereby evading the impression that he is abusing it so as not to confront the Palestinian issue. Yet he never fully confronted the Palestinian issue.
Netanyahu also said a few important things to the Palestinians that they don’t often hear: the root of the conflict is their refusal to recognize the Jews’ right to a state in their historic homeland; the closer we seem to get to agreement, e.g., in 2000 and last year, the more they seem to distance themselves. He also responded to Obama’s mistaken assertion in Cairo that Israel was created because of the Holocaust: "our right to the land does not derive from the disasters that we have suffered."
At the end of the day, another right-wing leader, steeped in Revisionist ideology, had agreed to partition the land into two states. This cannot have been easy for Netanyahu. Yet his was not an unequivocal acceptance of the peace process with all it entails. Accordingly, his coalition will hold; Washington will keep up the pressure; and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas will refuse to renew negotiations. Netanyahu "walked between the raindrops" and thinks he never got wet.