Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress brought political theater to a new height-and the State of Israel to a new low. With his unabashed arrogance and demagoguery on display as never before, Netanyahu’s address effectively slammed shut any window of opportunity for a peace settlement. Perhaps he could not hear the windows closing through the deafening applause of more than two dozen standing ovations from the members of Congress. If anything, his speech demonstrated that he has not been listening to the warning bells that have been sounding for months.
Netanyahu had an opportunity to articulate a credible diplomatic initiative that would garner the support of the United States, and provide President Obama with the tools necessary to derail the Palestinians’ attempt to gain recognition from the United Nations General Assembly. Instead, Netanyahu chose to leave Washington with his country more isolated and scorned than when he arrived. He may have claimed he was presenting an outline of a “genuine peace,” yet a parsing of Netanyahu’s rhetorical gamesmanship illustrates that – notwithstanding the sycophantic members of Congress – he is not fooling anyone.
“Two years ago,” he said “I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples: A Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state.” Yet actions prove otherwise. Even his rhetorical support for a two-state solution is littered with preconditions intended to create obstacles that will render his “commitment” completely meaningless. Even more, he is careful to state, “I publicly committed,”-not ‘the government of Israel.’ That is because today the government of Israel is clearly not committed to a two-state solution. A majority of his coalition partners – many from within his own party – have denounced even the slightest consideration of a land for peace formula when it comes to negotiations with the Palestinians. Other coalition partners, such as Shas, will not stay in the government if the final status of Jerusalem is placed on the negotiating table. He went on to say, “So why has peace not been achieved? “Because so far, the Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state, if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it.” However, most of Netanyahu’s colleagues in his own Likud Party are unwilling to accept a Palestinian state. In fact, while the current government of Israel works feverishly to deflect efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel, its policies serve to delegitimize the Palestinian national identity and their aspirations for statehood in the West Bank and Gaza (the territories captured by Israel in 1967).
To add insult to injury, Netanyahu went on to invoke something new that has not been stated in this context by any of his predecessors: “I recognize that in a genuine peace, we will be required to give up parts of the Jewish homeland. In Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers.” This statement disregards the presence of the Palestinian people and their national identity in the region for generations. Indeed, for how many generations must a people live on a land to call it a homeland? But from Netanyahu’s perspective the land of Israel belongs to Israel and Israel alone and whatever land Israel decides to relinquish would be national sacrifice for “the sake of peace.” Even worse, if Israel is not a foreign occupier, why has Netanyahu not annexed the West Bank and provided the Palestinian population with Israeli citizenship? Because doing so would guarantee the demise of the Jewish state by sheer demographics. The sad irony is that Netanyahu is ignoring the bitter reality that continuing the occupation will do the same.
But of course Netanyahu’s theatrics do not stop there. He proceeded by stating that: “President Abbas must do what I have done. I stood before my people, and I told you it wasn’t easy for me, and I said… I will accept a Palestinian state. It is time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say… I will accept a Jewish state.” These six words will not bring an end to the conflict, as he alluded, but will make it the largest and most unnecessary obstacle that Netanyahu has created since returning to the Prime Minister’s office. The identity of a nation-state on the basis of ethnicity or religion is not granted by another country, let alone one’s enemies. Doing so is the task of the nation’s leaders and citizenry. Israel has never requested any other country to recognize it as a Jewish state. Israel was accorded recognition on the basis of its own ethnic self-definition. Israel could choose to mirror itself after the Islamic Republic of Iran, and name itself the “Jewish State of Israel” if it chose to do so. True to this name, the state could also impose religious law, much to delight of many of Netanyahu’s coalition partners. But as long as Mahmoud Abbas is not an Israeli citizen, it is not his choice to make. Netanyahu should also be mindful that Egypt would not be called an “Arab Republic” if the majority of its citizens were not Arab. Unless Israel ends the occupation, demographics – not the Palestinian President – will dictate Israel’s future ethnic character and identity.
Having established, at least in his own mind, the philosophical underpinning of national identity, Netanyahu finally revealed his grand strategy of a future Palestinian state when he declared, “In any peace agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders. The precise delineation of those borders must be negotiated. We will be very generous on the size of a future Palestinian state. But as President Obama said, the border will be different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. Israel will not return to the indefensible lines of 1967.” Here he offers a minor concession – that “some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders,” – and surrounds it with insults, rendering his minimal declarations pointless. Achieving a peace settlement will not require Israel to be “generous.” It will require good-faith negotiations to achieve an agreement that both sides can accept. Furthermore, if the 1967 lines are “indefensible,” what is defensible? Netanyahu does not say. However, this statement follows the manufactured controversy that Netanyahu himself stoked over President Obama’s statement that an agreement will require a “mutually agreed land swap” along the 1967 lines. Of course, this is the same formula that was used in the Clinton Parameters, Geneva Accord, Ayalon/Nusseibeh plan, and the Olmert-Abbas talks. Instead of returning to that basis – the only basis upon which a sustainable peace could ever be achieved – Netanyahu has done all he can to delay having to make any real decisions. Furthermore, the truth is that Israel’s incorporation of settlements far into the West Bank – such as Ariel – will leave these Israeli communities truly “indefensible,” as they will be surrounded on three sides. In this respect, anything that Israel will maintain beyond the major settlement blocs will serve as security liabilities, not assets.
As Netanyahu moved to the next critical contentious issue of Jerusalem, he slammed the door shut in the face of the Palestinians when he said, “Jerusalem must never again be divided. Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel. I know that this is a difficult issue for Palestinians. But I believe with creativity and goodwill a solution can be found.” The Palestinians themselves do not want to “divide” Jerusalem per se. They want to keep it united, albeit with a capital in East Jerusalem. When Netanyahu says, “Creativity and good-will can create a solution,” then what is his idea? Where is his creativity and where is his good-will? Netanyahu stops short of saying anything meaningful that would give the Palestinians something to hold onto, and create an avenue toward the resumption of peace talks. Anyone who is serious about peace should recognize that the City of Jerusalem should remain united, but it cannot remain Israel’s capital alone. Peace can only reinforce the current co-habitation of Israelis and Palestinians in a united city which will make Jerusalem a microcosm for future peaceful coexistence between the two sides.
Although Israel has legitimate national security concerns, Netanyahu wants to ensure absolute national security, a result of which will leave the Palestinians without any semblance of independence. He continues, “So it is therefore absolutely vital for Israel’s security that a Palestinian state be fully demilitarized. And it is vital that Israel maintains a long-term military presence along the Jordan River.” Whereas a Palestinian state should indeed be demilitarized, there is no way Israel can maintain an absolute presence on the Jordan River, as doing so would be tantamount to a continuation of occupation. But an international presence along the border with Jordan could effectively safeguard Israel’s and Palestine’s security. Israel and the Palestinians have already proven that they can achieve successful security cooperation with American support, encouragement and facilitation. They can do so along the Jordan River as well, in conjunction with nations like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, all under the auspices of the United States. But Netanyahu has expressed no openness to such a possibility. As I have written previously, Israel’s security can only be maintained through a peace agreement and the ironclad security guarantees that would come with it. A continuation of the occupation in another – even if lesser – form would not provide the security Israel needs. In fact, placing Israeli soldiers along the Jordan River surrounded on all sides would be far more dangerous for Israel than a coordinated, international approach with some Israeli and Palestinian participation.
Unlike the rest of his speech, here Netanyahu makes important, valid points about the Palestinian refugees when he said, “…the Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved outside the borders of Israel. And worst of all, they continue to perpetuate the fantasy that Israel will one day be flooded by the descendants of Palestinian refugees. They were simply unwilling to end the conflict. And I regret to say this: They continue to educate their children to hate. They continue to name public squares after terrorists.” Indeed, the Palestinians must begin to prepare their public for a peace agreement. This means beginning to prepare their people for the reality that Palestinian refugees cannot return to the State of Israel-only to the State of Palestine. They must also end incitement, and halt the teaching of hate that I have witnessed in Palestinian cities and refugee camps in the region. However, Netanyahu must also understand the difficulty this poses politically for the Palestinian leadership. Instead of outrightly conceding this point, it should be sufficient that the Palestinians state their intention to resolve the refugee question in a manner consistent with Israel’s security, in the context of a two-state solution.
Regarding the negotiations with the Palestinians, Netanyahu cannot have it both ways when he stated “…Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by the Palestinian version of Al Qaeda.” He cannot say that the Palestinian leadership is weak, and the public divided, and therefore peace is beyond reach, while at the same time state that a Palestinian unity government is akin to “al Qaeda.” The truth is that Hamas-classified by the West and Israel as a terrorist organization-is now also a political party. Many political parties in Israel also reject the mere notion of Palestinian nationalism, yet they are committed to nonviolence. That should also be the requirement of Hamas. Furthermore, democracy cannot be achieved if one’s enemy dictates the platform of a major political party. Yet it is valid, and important, that Hamas completely renounce violence. Hamas too cannot have it both ways. It cannot seek to become a part of the political process while openly seeking Israel’s destruction, maintaining its armed struggle and conducting terror against Israel. Hamas must sooner than later make a choice because if it continues with its current posture, Israel will have the right and will not hesitate to decapitate its leadership entirely.
Finally, Netanyahu pays homage to President Obama on the question of how peace may be achieved agreeing with the President that peace cannot be imposed. “I appreciate the President’s clear position on this issue. Peace cannot be imposed. It must be negotiated. But it can only be negotiated with partners committed to peace.” As President Obama stated in his remarks at AIPAC, “The world is moving too fast.” If Netanyahu is not willing to create any opportunity for negotiations, the international community will pass Netanyahu and Israel by. It is true that an imposition of a peace agreement is not acceptable (and may not work), but Netanyahu’s delay tactics are only opening up possibility for outside interference that will pressure Israel in a variety of forms. If Netanyahu is serious about peace, and about his opposition to an imposed agreement, he should offer a plausible peace initiative of his own. Instead, he has given the international community even greater incentive to isolate Israel as never before.
As Meir Dagan, the former head of the Israeli Mossad who left his post in January recently stated at Tel Aviv University, that Israel’s top leaders (Barak and Netanyahu) lack judgment. The anticipated international pressure on Israel resulting from the Palestinian’s effort to gain recognition of their own state by the UN General Assembly could lead to a rash decision like an air strike on Iran, which Dagan characterized as “a stupid idea.” As a result, he continued, “The regional challenge Israel would face would be impossible.”
Netanyahu can only mislead his nation, his ally the United States, and the international community up to a point. Sooner or later, he must accept that he is facing a moment of choice: He can lead Israel to greater security, prosperity and international cooperation and integration or he can be the prime minister who watched a tsunami of unprecedented change in the Middle East sweep into and engulf the State of Israel while he stood by, and did nothing to stop it.
Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. A version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine on June 3rd, 2011.