Australia/Israel Review

Netanyahu’s new narrative

Jun 29, 2009 | Amotz Asa-El

Conditions for Palestinian statehood

By Amotz Asa-El

There was a strange sense of déjà vu following Binyamin Netanyahu’s much-hyped speech at Bar-Ilan University on June 14. It was not the first time, in fact it was the fourth, in which a hawkish prime minister had veered left after having built a whole career on embodying the Right.

And yet, biographically, programmatically, politically and diplomatically, Netanyahu’s televised endorsement of the two-state principle was different.

The prime minister’s arrival at age 60 to the political centre comes two decades after he became a lawmaker, and nearly three since he joined the foreign service. During this era Netanyahu emerged, first abroad and then in Israel, as the most effective spokesperson for the Israeli Right’s insistence that peace should not entail territorial concessions. It was a stance on which he was raised by his father, historian Benzion Netanyahu, who was among the confidantes of Vladimir Jabotinsky, founder of the Zionist movement’s Revisionist Party, forerunner of the Likud. That also explains why in his presentation, delivered at the Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, Netanyahu took pains to speak in ideological and historical terms.

The speech included two parts: what Netanyahu expects from the Palestinians and what they can expect from him. That marked a departure from both the original line of the Left, that the lack of peace was Israel’s fault, and from Ariel Sharon’s idea of unilateralism, which had Israel leave Gaza without demanding anything from the Palestinians, an idea that Ehud Olmert later planned to apply in the West Bank as well.

Netanyahu began by stating Israel’s historic attachment to the West Bank, where the Jewish nation emerged, and then proceeded to demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel’s character as a Jewish state, in the spirit of the United Nations’ Partition Resolution of 1947. He then proceeded to acknowledge that the Palestinians also have a cause, and to assert that he has no desire to rule over them. There is room, he explained, for the Jews and the Arabs west of the Jordan each to have their own anthem, flag and government. Moreover, the region had great prospects for an era of peace and entrepreneurship, in the spirit of the economic transformation that has been gathering in the Gulf in recent years, and which he praised warmly.

However, for all this to transpire the Palestinians will have to announce their acceptance of Israel as the state of the Jews. “The simple truth,” said Netanyahu, “is that the root of the conflict has been, and remains, the refusal to recognise the right of the Jewish people to its own state in its historic homeland.”

Netanyahu, in short, was not insinuating that he had converted or that the Palestinians had undergone an epiphany. “Some,” he said, “claim that without the Holocaust the state would not have been established, but I say that had there been a state there would have been no Holocaust.” It followed that Israel could under no circumstances afford to be gullible. That is why the prospective Palestinian state would have to be demilitarised, and the Palestinians’ aim of inserting refugees and their ostensible descendants to Israel would have to be abandoned.

Added up, this is a formula with which a broad majority of Israelis agree. And if this did not reflect a broad consensus to begin with, it may well create it, because of Netanyahu’s credentials in the Right as an ideologue, a stature Olmert and Sharon never enjoyed.

Netanyahu’s transformation did not happen overnight. His arguments for territorial integrity were strategic and historic, but not theological. Thus, when he opposed the retreat from Gaza he did not cite the Bible, and in fact did not even challenge the principle of the retreat, only its pace, which he thought should be slower, and its price tag, which he thought should be higher.

Now Netanyahu has taken his pragmatism to a new level, and in fact opened a crack for a sizeable enlargement of his coalition. Back in February, when Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni explained her failure to join Netanyahu’s government, she cited his refusal to adopt the two-state formula. Now that he has, she and her Kadima faction, which is the largest in the Knesset, have no ideological excuse for avoiding the coalition.

At the moment, such a move has yet to materialise, as it would involve replacing several ministers – probably including the Finance and Education ministers – after they have been in office for no more than a few weeks. However, should the Palestinians pick up the gauntlet and seek a serious deal with Netanyahu, it will likely involve concessions that will be unacceptable to some of his right-wing coalition allies. In such a case he now has Kadima ready to immediately join him and thus reconsolidate his grip on power. Similarly, Kadima may end up replacing Netanyahu’s ally on the Left, Labor, should his currently centrist economics revert to the Thatcherist domains where he is believed to remain more comfortable.

Netanyahu’s adoption of the two-state formula has also considerably deepened his diplomatic manoeuvre space. President Obama, whose speech in Cairo challenged Netanyahu and triggered the two-state speech in the first place, responded warmly to Netanyahu’s move, describing it as “a move in the right direction.”

True, Netanyahu and his government remain in disagreement with the US concerning Israel’s right to build in the West Bank, but Netanyahu’s abandonment of the position that was his political hallmark for more than a quarter of a century is no small accomplishment for Obama, whose stated aim is to defuse the “clash of civilisations”. Now the question is what, if any, will be the rest of the Middle East’s parallels of Netanyahu’s response to Obama’s vision, of a Middle East that voluntarily seeks accommodation with Washington under its new policy of outreach.

As of mid-June, such parallels have yet to emerge.

Netanyahu’s speech was received angrily by the Palestinian Authority, which called it “a hoax,” and even by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who said Netanyahu’s demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state will never be delivered by any Arab government, including Egypt’s. If this is accurate, it means that even while in Israel the last bastions of opposition to the 1947 Partition Resolution are falling, in the Arab world they are being redoubled. That is not what the White House wants, not to mention Congress. And so, between Obama’s speech in Cairo and Netanyahu’s in Ramat Gan, the Arab states will have manoeuvred themselves onto the defensive, as the moral onus reverts to them.

In fact, diplomats in Jerusalem and Washington believe that the Palestinians’ hostile response to Netanyahu’s speech has been gravely mistaken. Now President Mahmoud Abbas is likely to face pressure to make a concession of his own, so that Obama does not emerge ineffective in the Middle East outside Israel. It is not pragmatic, the Palestinians will be told, to ignore Netanyahu’s concessions and focus on vilifying him. First, they were difficult for him to make, and for that alone he deserves appreciation. Secondly, Netanyahu now embodies the Israeli consensus and is the only Israeli leader who is both equipped and prepared to lead the Israeli public through the kind of painful surgery that a peace agreement would likely involve.

Then again, as Middle Eastern dynamics go, interest in Netanyahu’s transformation quickly gave way to yet more breaking news, in this case the post-electoral upheaval in Iran. With Islamists stoking military, nuclear and political fires along the belt that stretches from Iran through Afghanistan to Pakistan, American diplomacy will have to concede that Netanyahu’s move was not followed by an Arab gesture. Moreover, there are more pressing problems in the region besides the Arab-Israeli conflict – not to mention flashpoints beyond the Middle East, such as North Korea.

Paradoxically, such a realisation will vindicate Netanyahu’s other argument in his speech, that “the greatest threat to the Middle East, and to all of humanity, is the encounter between extremist Islam and nuclear weapons.” Arab leaders in Cairo, Amman, Riyadh and Ramallah may have been turned off by other statements in Netanyahu’s much-heralded speech, but this one they could not have said better themselves.



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