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Obliging Obama

What Netanyahu said yesterday, and to whom he was saying it

Benjamin Balint
June 15, 2009
A TV broadcast of Netanyahu's speech, as reflected in a Jerusalem restaurant window.(AFP/Getty Images)
A TV broadcast of Netanyahu's speech, as reflected in a Jerusalem restaurant window.(AFP/Getty Images)

At his much-anticipated speech at the Begin-Sadat Center of Bar-Ilan University on Sunday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now on the job for two and half months, addressed three different audiences at once.

To Arab leaders, Bibi held out a rhetorical olive branch: “Let us meet,” he said. “Let us speak of peace and let us make peace. I am ready to meet with you at any time. I am willing to go to Damascus, to Riyadh, to Beirut, to any place—including Jerusalem…. I call on the leaders of the Arab world and on the Palestinian leadership, let us continue together on the path of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein.” To the Palestinian Authority, in particular, the prime minister said, “Let’s begin negotiations immediately without preconditions.”

Netanyahu’s second audience—the Israeli electorate—remains fearful that any further Israeli withdrawals threaten to create another terror-breeding Hamastan, and so to them he stressed, as if they hadn’t heard it before, that the source of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict lies deep within Arab rejectionism.

Every withdrawal was met with massive waves of terror, by suicide bombers and thousands of missiles.

We tried to withdraw with an agreement and without an agreement. We tried a partial withdrawal and a full withdrawal. In 2000 and again last year, Israel proposed an almost total withdrawal in exchange for an end to the conflict, and twice our offers were rejected.

We evacuated every last inch of the Gaza strip, we uprooted tens of settlements and evicted thousands of Israelis from their homes, and in response, we received a hail of missiles on our cities, towns and children.

Bibi’s real audience, however, was in fact neither team, but the referee. To Barack Obama, Netanyahu wished to make two points. First, he sought to counter the president’s implication in his Cairo address earlier this month that Israel was granted to the Jews as restitution for the Holocaust. Netanyahu insisted instead on seeing the land as the birthplace of the Jewish people:

The Jewish people and the Land of Israel has lasted for more than 3,500 years. Judea and Samaria, the places where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, David and Solomon, and Isaiah and Jeremiah lived, are not alien to us. This is the land of our forefathers.
The right of the Jewish people to a state in the land of Israel does not derive from the catastrophes that have plagued our people. True, for 2,000 years the Jewish people suffered expulsions, pogroms, blood libels, and massacres which culminated in a Holocaust—a suffering which has no parallel in human history.

There are those who say that if the Holocaust had not occurred, the state of Israel would never have been established. But I say that if the state of Israel would have been established earlier, the Holocaust would not have occurred.

More controversially—and here we get to the nub of his speech—Netanyahu pledged that Israel would build no new settlements nor appropriate more West Bank land, and he set forth last night for the first time his vision of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, much as Obama wanted. The man who had so staunchly opposed the Oslo Accords may have been short on details—roadmap, yes or no? Annapolis, yes or no? Saudi initiative, yes or no? 1967 borders?—but his two conditions for granting statehood were clear enough: demilitarization, and unambiguous recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.

As for the first condition, it must be said that one searches one’s memory almost in vain for successful precedents. There are countries without standing armies, like Andorra; but that tiny state is defended by France and Spain. And there are of course demilitarized zones: Åland, an island region on the coast of Finland demilitarized since 1921; the DMZ separating North from South Korea, created by the United Nations in 1953; and the Sinai.

But Netanyahu’s proposal, for all the hype, is nothing new. Both teams and the referees have at one time or another endorsed the idea. A demilitarized Palestinian state, after all, was a cornerstone of the Oslo Process—one of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s four “red lines” for final-status negotiations at the July 2000 Camp David summit. The Palestinian moderate Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University, called for the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state as far back as January 2002. In the U.S., Gen. James Jones, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s special envoy to the Annapolis conference in 2007, concluded that a future Palestinian state would require third-party troops—from NATO, for example—to secure Israel’s security.

Bibi’s second condition, however, his insistence on recognition, is by far the deeper. It used to be, in the days when wealth derived from natural resources, that wars were fought to gain those resources. Today, territorial aggrandizement has been rendered obsolete; in a globalized world, a society’s economic success depends on enterprising men and woman working in an environment in which innovation is rewarded. High tech is the new coal. This is why Bibi closed his speech with praise of “Silicon Wadi,” the cluster of high-tech and research companies along Israel’s coastline: “Our microchips are powering the world’s computers,” he said. “Our medicines are treating diseases once considered incurable.” Today, however, conflicts—this one preeminent among them–more commonly arise from the desire for recognition, for dignity, and for having one’s aspirations validated by others.

Not surprisingly, then, Sunday night’s speech did not find favor in Arab eyes, especially for the ways it wrapped Palestinian statehood in a classic Zionist narrative. Israeli Arab MK Ahmed Tibi called it a “public-relations ploy.” “The peace process has been moving at the speed of a tortoise,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. “Tonight, Netanyahu has flipped it over on its back.” Mustafa Al-Barghouti, member of the Palestinian legislature, said: “He is not talking about a state; he is talking about a ghetto, a Bantustan … a system to consolidate an apartheid system.”

So much for recognition.

Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is a fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Jesse Oxfeld, a former executive editor and publisher of Tablet Magazine, is a freelance theater critic. He was The New York Observer’s theater critic from 2009 to 2014.

Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is the author ofRunning Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right.

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