Benjamin Netanyahu’s Congress speech and the way it was delivered by the prime minister was a rhetoric masterpiece. We could not expect a better speech than this – in terms of its format and style. The substance was also excellent, as long as Netanyahu addressed the special Israel-US relationship.
Netanyahu stressed time and again that the State of Israel is the only genuine democracy in the Middle East, and captured the current zeitgeist in showing empathy for young Arabs’ aspirations for freedom.
However, in respect to diplomatic messages regarding peace with the Palestinians, the speech offered almost no innovations. Netanyahu articulated precisely what he already declared at the Knesset regarding the components of peace, yet this time he did not argue that this is an Israeli consensus, but rather, presented these components as his own position.
There were two issues where Netanyahu went far in an effort to accommodate the Palestinian position beyond what was already said at the Knesset. He explicitly said that Israel is willing to undertake concessions that will keep some settlements beyond Israel’s borders. This statement may pose difficulties for Netanyahu, once he returns home, vis-à-vis some Likud members and with his coalition.
Another innovation, or perhaps a semi-innovation, had to do with Netanyahu’s remarks about Israel’s generosity regarding the size of the Palestinian state, which the PM said must be “viable.” At the same time, Israel will maintain a tough position in respect to delineating the border, as it must be able to defend itself.
Abbas focusing on UN
An initial assessment of the historic speech’s effect and ramifications suggests that the Palestinians will not be impressed by it or view it as a reason to return to the negotiating table. Netanyahu was unwilling to utter the mantra whereby negotiations on borders will be premised on the 1967 lines, and did not even explicitly declare that he is willing to proceed with territorial swaps.
Netanyahu made do with vague wording whereby Israel would be willing to undertake far-reaching compromises that will affect the Palestinian state’s size and viability. This clearly hinted at willingness to undertake territorial swaps, but the prime minister did not say so explicitly.
The PM also presented a precondition for negotiations, that is, Palestinian leader Abbas’ willingness to declare that he is willing to recognize Israel as the Jewish State and that an agreement will put an end to all mutual demands. Netanyahu also made it clear that even a limited return of refugees to Israel is out of the question (something that both Olmert and Barak were willing to accept.)
Moreover, just like Obama in his last speeches, Netanyahu ignored Abbas’ demand for a three-month settlement construction suspension as a condition for a Palestinian return to the negotiating table. Hence, for the Palestinians this speech changes nothing.
Yet that’s not such a terrible tragedy. We know that Abbas is unwilling to resume negotiating, because he lost his faith in both Netanyahu and Obama a while ago. Moreover, it’s quite clear that Abbas and his people are enamored with the notion whereby they will force a final-status agreement on Israel not through negotiations, but rather, via international pressure and marches by unarmed masses.
The opening shot for a Palestinian campaign based on this strategy will come in September, after the Palestinians and the Arab League will bring up recognition of statehood for a United Nations vote; some 120 of the UN’s 190 members will endorse this move. Hence, the absence of gestures or direct concessions in Netanyahu speech made no difference whatsoever.
Part 2 of article to be published Wednesday
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