There’s a saying that Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic one. In a sense, the observation reflects the existential question that has hung over Israel since the moment of its birth — a foreign policy distinct from domestic concerns is the kind of luxury enjoyed by nations old enough and secure enough not to have to fight for their very identity. In another sense, the saying reflects the raw reality of Israeli politics, dominated by the need to build and maintain coalitions with smaller parties often guided by even smaller fields of vision.
Against that backdrop, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s major address on foreign policy was a domestic success. His grudging acceptance of a demilitarized Palestinian state, his ringing call for Palestinians to accept Israel as a Jewish homeland and his implicit endorsement of growth within settlements matches the broad outlines of Israeli public opinion. He opened the speech on June 14 by greeting the “citizens of Israel,” and they apparently returned the favor — 71% supported the speech according to the latest Haaretz poll.
Perhaps this was all that could be expected of Netanyahu. But while he shrewdly was able to shore up his shaky domestic base, he missed the opportunity to become the statesman Israel needs and deserves.
Much has been made of his first-ever acknowledgment of a Palestinian state: “In my vision of peace, in this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other.” Yet this lovely statement only puts Netanyahu on par with his predecessors, only echoes Israel’s past commitments and America’s firm policy. It doesn’t even signal a bold move within his own right-wing party — the Haaretz survey showed that 90% of Likud voters agreed with the speech. No risk there.
The caveats Netanyahu attached to his support of a Palestinian state were well within mainstream Israeli discourse, and his call upon Arab leaders to work together in regional negotiations is fast becoming the new mantra in the Middle East. But while he was busy insisting upon what everyone else must do, Netanyahu didn’t once acknowledge Israel’s own role in making the attainment of peace — even a cold peace — so difficult.
“Why has this conflict continued for more than 60 years?” he asked. His answer: The refusal to recognize Israel as the historic homeland of the Jewish people.
True. But by so adamantly directing blame in only one direction, Netanyahu missed the opportunity to acknowledge Israel’s role in Palestinian suffering — which is real and ongoing, even if one believes that it is an unintentional byproduct of regional intransigence. His presentation of history assigns not a single failure to Israel, as if it were a superhuman state, bearing no responsibility for the ills surrounding and, increasingly, within.
Such rhetoric may appease a domestic base, but in the context of the Middle East, it leads to only more of the same. Leaders from each side claim the superiority of their positions and the validity of their grievances, leaving no room for discussion or compromise.
Contrast that with the statesmanlike words spoken by President Obama in Cairo, as he sought to validate Muslim concerns about America and the West, while at the same time forcefully challenging the Muslim world to drop its own prejudices and destructive behaviors.
In fact, there is no comparison. Obama outlined a vision of the future; Netanyahu merely clung to the present. It may have been as much as he could give, but sadly, it may not be enough.