Ladies and gentleman: We saw a sea change. Or perhaps a mini-change. Time and mostly the deeds of Benjamin Netanyahu will tell, yet the impression is that something happened here.
It is hard to ignore the importance of the prime minister’s speech, and the shift in his positions reflected in the speech and mostly in his rhetoric. The man who wrote books about terror and who made most of his public service career out of warning of and scaring us with the prospect of a Palestinian state has ultimately declared the necessity of establishing it.
It turns out that one can attempt to go on a long vacation, leaving behind reality and historic regularity, yet not over time, and particularly when you are Israel’s prime minister while America is going through an ideological storm. The change in power in Washington, Obama’s vision, his Cairo speech and some open and surreptitious pressure were at the base of Netanyahu’s need to start moving.
As one who knew that his speech constitutes a bitter pill to his rightist allies, and to himself in fact, Netanyahu fashioned his address out of all the historical mitigating elements he was able to draw on: Although he skipped some historical archenemies of the Jews, as expected he emphasized our angst-filled history, our righteousness, and our primordial longing for peace.
He dedicated a sentence and a half to the suffering of our neighbors, yet he wholly ignored the implications of an occupation that has lasted for two generations now. It’s understandable and not surprising. Netanyahu speaks to the center and right of the political spectrum.
However, one has difficulty in seeing how purposeful diplomatic negotiations can be stimulated in the face of the endless series of reservations presented by Netanyahu, and with the model he proposed, whereby the Palestinians establish a state without a state.
If we add to that his endorsement of continuing the settlement enterprise, Netanyahu practically neutralized his main statement: Two states for two peoples. However, diplomatic life has dynamics of its own, and as we are dealing with Netanyahu here, this is nonetheless an encouraging start. Later on we may see additional somersaults and spectacular U-turns.
Some of Netanyahu’s sources of inspiration and the figures who helped him to formulate his conservative worldview are people like late and reputable political science professor Samuel Huntington, who coined the key phrase underlining the Republican Administration’s attitude to the Arab world – “The clash of civilizations.” We can also find the Jewish British historian Bernard Lewis, who also endorsed this perception and consistently encouraged the rift and antagonism vis-à-vis the Arab world. The influence of these two on the Republican Administration, particularly in the wake of September 11th, was immense.
Obama is seeking to marginalize this entire antagonistic concept and attempt to establish frank and ongoing dialogue with the Muslim world. Netanyahu is starting to realize he needs to bring himself up-to-date, and quickly.
On the face of it, there appeared to be some communication problems between the two leaders. It looked like a forced affair, filled with obstacles and premised on deep conceptual, personal, and intergenerational gaps, among others. We won’t see chemistry there apparently.
In fact, it is difficult to imagine two characters who are such polar opposites of each other in every way: Their development, the conditions they grew up in, their worldview, and their close associates with their advice. Everything is the opposite. Yet despite this, and even though Netanyahu is not quite Columbus, he is deeply familiar with America and its system of government, rules of play, power, and our dependence on it.
Therefore, some form of communication with Obama, even if it is merely to-the-point and constructive, can emerge, even if this involves trials and tribulations. However, it will take time. Netanyahu’s speech shows us that he still recognizes America’s centrality and realizes that something happened there.