The Netanyahu Speech: A Primer

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published June 17, 2009, issue of June 26, 2009.
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Q: Prime Minister Netanyahu promised that his speech of June 14 would provide a detailed response to President Obama’s recent statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Did it?

A: Yes and no.

Q: Can you be more specific?

A: Alright, first the “yes.” He began by saying, “Let’s begin negotiations immediately without preconditions.” And it is true, as has been widely reported, that Netanyahu used the term “Palestinian state,” twice explicitly and once by implication. The explicit statements: First, “It is impossible to expect us to agree in advance to the principle of a Palestinian state without assurances that this state will be demilitarized.” And then, “If we receive this guarantee” — a guarantee from “the international community, led by the United States” of Palestine’s total demilitarization — “and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the State of the Jewish people, then we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.” Finally, by implication: “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.”

Q: That’s a real breakthrough, coming from Netanyahu, isn’t it?

A: Hardly. The first mention is cast in the negative. The second suggests that a peace agreement awaits at some indeterminate future time. And the third, with its reference to mutual respect — well, mutual respect between a nuclear power with a mighty army and a radically demilitarized state next door is almost surely wishful thinking — or, more likely, formulaic speaking.

Q: Isn’t the international guarantee of Palestine’s demilitarization a “precondition” to negotiation?

A: Maybe. Here and elsewhere in the speech, it’s not clear whether he is talking about agreements that have to be reached before there can be meaningful negotiations or demands that Israel would bring to the negotiating table. The fact is that the importance of Palestine’s demilitarization has been widely assumed ever since the notion of a two-state solution was first put forward. The two ideas are intimately linked; it is clear that each is contingent on the other. Yet the prime minister did not say, “In principle, we accept the idea of a two-state solution, so long as Palestine accepts that it will be demilitarized.” Instead, he asserts that “On a matter so critical to the existence of Israel, we must first have our security needs addressed.” So he wants the Palestinians to say “uncle” before Israel says “cousin.”

Q: Alright, then, his endorsement of a two-state solution seems choked. What psychological need does Israel have for a “public, binding and unequivocal Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people”? Doesn’t most of the world already accept that?

A: Indeed it does. Israel wants it not for psychological reasons but for legal reasons. That’s why the word “binding” is there. What such recognition binds the Palestinians to, as Netanyahu says, is a very practical consequence: It implies “a clear understanding that the Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved outside Israel’s borders. For it is clear that any demand for resettling Palestinian refugees within Israel undermines Israel’s continued existence as the state of the Jewish people.”

Q: Israel’s quarrel with America hinges on the settlement question. What did Netanyahu have to say about that?

A: What he chose not to say turns out to be as revealing as what he did say. What he said was “we have no intention of building new settlements or of expropriating additional land for existing settlements.” That is largely meaningless, since many if not most of the existing settlements have large tracts of land, much of it expropriated from Palestinians, that have yet to be developed. So there can be very substantial construction within existing settlements. And what he didn’t say is anything at all about the hundred or so illegal outposts that Israel long-since promised to remove but that have yet, with a handful of exceptions, to be touched.

The “natural growth” controversy is a separate matter, though it is worth noting that somewhere between a third and two-fifths of the growth in settlement population during the last decade hasn’t been “natural” at all. It has been the result of heavily subsidized in-migration, not family expansion. The problem here is that Israel has grown so accustomed to doing what it wants to do in the settlements, no matter what it has publicly promised, begetting only an occasional “tsk tsk” from the Americans, that it cannot easily deal with the fact that the Obama administration means to insist that its promises be kept.

Q: Anything else?

A: Lots more, but the day is short. Best to leave the parsing for others and take the speech as a whole. As a whole, it accomplished what Netanyahu evidently wanted to accomplish: To lay down so many markers, attach so many poison pills to his call for peace, that nothing has changed, peace is no closer.

None of which is to say that the Palestinians have, for their part, dealt wisely or honorably with the issue of peace. They have in fact made it easy for Israelis to be skeptical, if not downright cynical, about living side-by-side in two states. They cannot and will not be taken as a serious partner until they manage to halt the incitement that has long infected them. But in the meantime, there is a proposal on the table, the Arab League/Saudi proposal, that offers a useful starting point for serious negotiation. What a shame that Netanyahu didn’t shock his audience by giving a speech one sentence long: “We welcome the Saudi proposal, and are ready to begin negotiations around it tomorrow morning.” That would have changed everything.

Blessed are the peacemakers, we’re told — not those who drape themselves in the language of peace while dancing on its grave.

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