Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Bar-Ilan revisited, four years later

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On Monday, four-and-a-half years after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies and formally committed to the two-state formula, he returned to deliver a follow-up of sorts, that has been unfairly maligned in some quarters for being too hawkish.

In both speeches, the issue of Iran featured prominently, but it is the elements relating to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that has attracted most attention.

A New York Times report, for instance, described the speech as "strident" and claimed that many analysts felt it "sought to appease conservatives skeptical of the peace talks".

Among the supposedly contentious elements of the speech were Netanyahu's assertion that it is not settlements or occupation but a Palestinian refusal to accept the Jewish people's right to statehood in their ancestral homeland that demarcates the conflict; his insistence that the concept of peace based on two-states is incompatible with a Palestinian right of return to Israel; and the section of his speech where he recounted how the Mandatory Palestine Arab leader Haj Amin al-Husseni collaborated with Hitler's annihilation of the Jews to prevent their escape to the Middle East.

Yet, for those with the time and inclination to read or listen to Netanyahu's words, the 2009 and 2013 talks are are actually mostly congruent. Indeed, elements of the latest speech appear to be an effort to simply re-emphasise key themes he struck in 2009.

Here is Netanyahu from July 14, 2009:

We need the Palestinian leadership to rise and say, simply 'We have had enough of this conflict. We recognize the right of the Jewish People to a state its own in this Land. We will live side by side in true peace.' I am looking forward to this moment.

We want them to say the simplest things, to our people and to their people. This will then open the door to solving other problems, no matter how difficult. The fundamental condition for ending the conflict is the public, binding and sincere Palestinian recognition of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish People. (Applause)

For this to have practical meaning, we need a clear agreement to solve the Palestinian refugee problem outside of the borders of the State of Israel. For it is clear to all that the demand to settle the Palestinian refugees inside of Israel, contradicts the continued existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish People. We must solve the problem of the Arab refugees.

And here he is on October 7, 2013:

The more moderate elements in Judea and Samaria, the Palestinian Authority - it is true that they do not engage in terror and this is an important distinction. They do not engage in terror, but when they are asked to say: Well, do you recognize? Not in Judea and Samaria, not in the West Bank, but are you ready finally to recognize the Jewish state? They answer: We are prepared to recognize the Israeli people; we are ready to recognize Israel. I say, that is not the question I am asking: Are you prepared to recognize the Jewish state, the nation state of the Jewish people? And the answer so far has been no. Why not?
 
During my speech here four years ago, I said that the solution is a demilitarized Palestinian state. The reason for demilitarization is clear to everyone in light of our experience - true and ongoing demilitarization with very clear security arrangements and no international forces. But a Jewish state - recognize the Jewish state.
 
Why are you not willing to recognize the Jewish state? We are willing to recognize your nation state, and that is at great cost - it involves territories, our ancestral lands, which is not insignificant. And I say this as well - this is a very difficult thing. But you need to make a series of concessions too and the first concession is to give up your dream of the right of return. We will not be satisfied with recognition of the Israeli people or of some kind of binational state which will later be flooded by refugees.
 
This is the nation state of the Jewish people. If they want, Jews immigrate to this country. Palestinian Arabs, if they want, will go there. Recognize the Jewish state. As long as you refuse to do so, there will never be peace. Recognize our right to live here in our own sovereign state, our nation state - only then will peace be possible.

The Palestinian Authority's response to Netanyahu's speech was swift and uncompromising. As reported by Arab Affairs correspondent Elhanan Miller of the Times of Israel, Yasser Abed-Rabbo, the PA spokesman and secretary of the PLO, declared:

‘Netanyahu is the number one extremist in Israel. He hides behind [Economics Minister Naftali] Bennett and [former foreign minister Avigdor] Liberman. He is the symbol of extremism and resorts to a policy that seeks no solution,' Abed Rabbo said, adding that the Palestinian leadership refuses to recognize ‘historic Palestine' as the ‘homeland of the Jewish people.'

It is fairly clear that many of the critics of the speech are coming from a position that sees the viability of a peace process as mostly or entirely dependent upon Israel and not the Palestinians, and this is the reason they object to the aspects of the speech where Netanyahu again laid our - just as he did in 2009 - what he believes is the preconditions required for a successful two-state agreement.

Take Haaretz's Barak Ravid who offered his analysis to Monday's speech but included nary a mention of any responsibility on the part of the Palestinians to create the conditions to make peace:

For over a month, right-wing members of the coalition have been telling anyone willing to listen that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is about to make a dramatic diplomatic move - a permanent agreement, intermediate arrangement or unilateral move that would necessitate a territorial withdrawal, uprooting settlements and establishing a Palestinian state. They sent letters, signed petitions, held conferences and were interviewed at every opportunity.

Sunday evening the prime minister allayed their fears. Almost four and half years after he stood at the podium at Bar-Ilan University and delivered a moderate speech in which he recognized for the first time the two-state solution, Netanyahu returned to the same spot to give a hawkish address in which he did everything except announce that he is reneging on his agreement in principle to Palestinian statehood.

Ravid's Haaretz stablemate Bradley Burston was even more vehemently negative in his assessment of the speech:

According to Netanyahu, 'even if we do achieve this recognition, after years of incitement that still continues, we have no assurance that this recognition will filter down into all levels of Palestinian society.'

Who benefits from all of this? Certainly, not Israel. Not even the right, which at this point doesn't trust Netanyahu any more than it trusted Arafat.

When it comes to Netanyahu as the new Arafat, there are only two clear winners. The movement to boycott Israel acquired an eloquent spokesman this month.

Yet is this depiction of Netanyahu fair?

In the four-and-a-half years since the original Bar-Ilan speech, Netanyahu's efforts to improve cooperation and jump start renewed negotiations, and the confidence-building measures he has offered just to restart peace talks are not insignificant. They include:

• Implementing an unprecedented 10-month settlements building freeze in the West Bank that none of his predecessors ever contemplated.

• Repeatedly offering to hold unconditional peace talks.

• Imploring the World Bank to extend a loan to the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah so it did not go bankrupt.

• Ensuring that Abbas and his cronies rule over the West Bank did not fall prey to Hamas as happened in Gaza in 2007.

• Largely ignoring the abrogation of a key provision of the Oslo Accords by Abbas in his push to have the UN recognise the State of Palestine.

• The removal of  hundreds of checkpoints on the West Bank.

• Agreeing to release Palestinians prisoners tried, convicted and jailed for committing some of the most despicable acts of terror.

As for the speech itself, Commentary's Jonathan Tobin correctly notes that Netanyahu was merely reminding his listeners of the underlying principles of the conflict:

Netanyahu's speech was far from the denunciation of the peace process that some of his detractors are depicting. In fact, what he did was merely to articulate the simple formula for how the two-state solution could be achieved: Palestinians must recognize that the Jews have a right to their own state. Remembering the past was not merely rehearsing old grudges but a reminder that the notion that Jewish settlements are the real obstacle to peace is absurd. After all, Palestinians have been attacking the Jewish right to live anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean for a century. As Netanyahu pointed out, it wasn't a territorial conflict in the 1920s when anti-Jewish pogroms were initiated or the 1940s when Palestinian leaders embraced Hitler because the Jews didn't have territory.

But all the Palestinians need to get a state alongside Israel is to say they endorse the right to a Jewish state and to renounce the so-called "right of return" for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. Since that is still apparently too much to ask of the PA, what possible hope can there be for the peace talks?

For Tobin, Netanyahu merely highlighted the uncomfortable truth that was subsumed by the historic Oslo Accords launched 20 years ago last month:

The Oslo Accords failed in large measure because the United States and Israel never took Arafat's doubletalk seriously and chose to ignore Palestinian incitement and provocation.

The day after Netanyahu's speech President Abbas held a meeting in Ramallah with 11 left-leaning members of Israel's Knesset. And as Tobin noted of this meeting:

Israeli left-wingers say they were impressed by Abbas's discretion with them during their meeting:

‘The things that he didn't say I think were most important,' said Merav Michaeli, a member of Israel's Labor Party. ‘He made sure that he doesn't say anything that makes us uncomfortable.'

But if you think that sounds suspiciously like the shell game the Palestinians played with supporters of the peace process back in the 1990s, it should. Abbas played nice with Israeli critics of the Netanyahu government during his meeting and even belatedly condemned the shooting of a 9-year-old Israeli girl in a West Bank settlement during what appears to have been a terrorist incursion this past weekend. But the ‘upbeat tone' of his address included nothing about recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state or the right of return, the real obstacles to peace.

Tellingly, once Abbas had left and the cameras were off, one of the PA leader's senior aides and negotiators set the record straight about what the Palestinians are willing to do. Yasser Abed Rabbo not only dropped the happy talk and called Netanyahu an 'extremist,' he bluntly said the Palestinians would never recognize 'historic Palestine' as the 'homeland of the Jewish people.'

Rabbo sat next to Abbas during the love fest with leftist Israelis while the latter refused to say what he felt about the 'Jewish state' issue, something that Netanyahu's critics thought was a good sign. But Rabbo took that attempt at ambiguity and tossed it into the trash. That point was also made apparent in a pamphlet handed out by the PA that depicted it as a made-up issue despite the fact that the original United Nations partition resolution of 1947 specifically referred to the creation of a Jewish state alongside an Arab one.

The point here is not so much that Netanyahu's stance - which is not unreasonably being seen as an attempt to answer his right-wing critics who fear he is about to cave in to pressure from Kerry and President Obama - is reasonable and that of Abbas and Rabbo is not. Rather, it is that once again the Palestinians are trying to have it both ways, talking peace at one moment and making it clear their goal is continued conflict at another.

Also reflecting on the Abbas meeting with the Israeli MKs was the Times of Israel editor David Horovitz who noted:

After the MKs had introduced themselves to Abbas, two or three had asked pointed questions, and Abbas had ducked these while exuding bonhomie - the president posed for more pictures, many more. He posed with the entire visiting political delegation...

Conspicuously absent from all these photographs, indeed absent from the entire room during the entire visit, was the Israeli flag. Not so much as a little one on the table. It made for quite a contrast to the scene on July 31, when members of Bar's Knesset Caucus to Resolve the Arab-Israeli Conflict, hosting PA politicians in the Israeli parliament at a meeting attended by 33 MKs from parties representing 77 of the 120 MKs, held their talks with the Palestinian flag alongside Israel's behind them - a much-headlined Knesset precedent.

Perhaps the main difference between 2009 and 2013 is the sense of disappointment that peace appears little closer despite the fact that the leaders of all the main Israeli political parties are committed to a two-state solution.

It is certainly unfortunate that those who are so quick to give Abbas a free pass on his responsibilities to lead his people toward peace are even faster in finding fault with Netanyahu for failing to achieve peace even as he has done much more than Abbas - rhetorically and in terms of actual concessions on the ground - to bring that peace closer.

Allon Lee

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