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Regarding Bibi

Reactions to the Netanyahu speech in Israeli and U.S. media

June 15, 2009

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a much-awaited speech yesterday at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in which he endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state, provided it is completely demilitarized and its leadership recognizes Israel as a Jewish state. It marked the first time the Likud politician conditionally endorsed the two-state solution, which he did while trying to balance the interests of the right-wing constituency that awarded him power a few months ago. Netanyahu was firm on several points, however. He said that Jerusalem should remain undivided and in Israeli hands; pre-existing settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem’s suburbs should be allowed to expand internally to allow for the continuance of “normal life;” and that the state of Israel, far from being the tragic political culmination of the Holocaust, is legitimized by millennia of Jewish history and Jewish ownership of the land.

Haaretz has the full text of the speech here. Tablet contributing editor Gershom Gorenberg parses the “contradictory” language of the speech here, and Benjamin Balint offers an analysis of what Netanyahu actually said here.

The Israeli press has been the most critical of both the substance and the style of the speech. Haaretz correspondent Yossi Verter argues that the entire speech was written and delivered for the benefit of one man—Barack Obama. “If it were up to [Netanyahu],” Verter wrote, “he would be glad to bear the Likud’s criticism and let the right blow its steam over the next day, accusing him of going too far. That way, he would enjoy both worlds: He would receive credit from Obama, but not have to pay the cost in terms of his coalition.” Verter’s colleague Akiva Eldar is more damning, claiming that the entire address was an act of colonialist condescension and Jewish chauvinism and that “[i]t’s hard to believe that a single Palestinian leader will be found who will buy the defective merchandise Netanyahu presented last night.”

Yair Lapid at Yediot was more sanguine about Netanyahu’s qualified reversal of position: ” He did not try to circumvent, but rather, raised all the points bothering every sane Israeli who does not put his hand in the sand, one by one: Palestinian rejectionism, the incitement, Hamas’ rise in Gaza, and the right of return.”

The Jerusalem Post runs a story citing Palestinian and Arab reaction to Bibi’s address. Unsurprisingly, it’s been uniformly hostile. The article quotes one aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: “Netanyahu’s speech is a blow to Obama before it’s a blow to the Palestinians and Arabs. It’s obvious, in the aftermath of this speech, that we are headed toward another round of violence and bloodshed.”

Meanwhile, stateside conservatives think Bibi provided a necessary and urgent corrective on Obama’s Cairo rhetoric. Commentary’s Jennifer Rubin, for instance, finds the Israeli P.M. was long on facts and cogency: “Netanyahu’s most complete argument was reserved for the nature of the Palestinian crisis and the key to unlocking peace. Unlike Obama, who is fixated on settlements and the status of the West Bank (and who therefore omitted 60 years of history), Netanyahu’s vision is based on the simple truth of Palestinian intransigence.”

At The Weekly Standard, Elliot Abrams, George W. Bush’s deputy national security director, argues that the Obama administration seems intent on repeating all the same mistakes of the Bush administration in focusing on the matter of Israeli settlements in the West Bank over Palestinian economic development there: “So determined is our government to produce nirvana for Palestinians, it seems willing to ignore chances to bring them better lives now—something Netanyahu pledged to work with the U.S. on immediately. If the administration chooses to keep fighting almost entirely on the settlement ‘freeze’ issue, it will be showing that a confrontation with Netanyahu is not a problem it seeks to avoid but a tactic it seeks to embrace.”

And Shmuel Rosner, in a rapid-response essay for The New Republic, at first compares the eloquence of Obama to that Netanyahu and suggests that now that the Israeli has made the (possibly empty) verbal gesture of acknowledging Palestinian statehood, isn’t it time for a Palestinian leader to reciprocate by acknowledging Israel as an unequivocally Jewish state?