Netanyahu's Illusory Concession on Palestine

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a remarkably intransigent speech at Bar-Ilan University, intended to both mirror and answer the speech President Barack Obama gave in Cairo last month. Netanyahu flatly refused to call for a settlement freeze, making the absurd but oft-heard argument that "there is a need to allow settlers to lead normal lives, to allow mothers and fathers to raise their children like all families around the world," as if no one else on Earth were subject to zoning restrictions. He laid out conditions for Israeli support for a Palestinian state so pinched and deliberately unrealistic, they were more insult than offer. In keeping with the old Likkud line that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people, he asserted the historic Jewish claim to the West Bank -- or, as he put it, "Judea and Samaria" -- and described the Palestinians as living "in the very heart of our homeland."

"When Israeli TV, after the speech, went to talk to the settlers, they were all happy," says M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum, a think tank that advocates for a two-state solution. Rosenberg suggests that Netanyahu may have felt empowered by the chaos in Iran, which the right, desperate to marginalize that country, has welcomed. "I think this speech is entirely different than the speech would have been had Mousavi won the election," says Rosenberg. "He's strutting."

And yet, immediately after the speech, major newspaper headlines telegraphed an entirely different story. The big news, as they saw it, was that Netanyahu had accepted a Palestinian state. "Israel Takes Steps Toward Peace," declared The Washington Post Web site. The Los Angeles Times called Netanyahu's announcement "a concession to the Obama administration." The next day's Wall Street Journal said, "Israel Offers Two-State Plan." This is no doubt as Netanyahu's speechwriters intended it. Partisans of the Israeli right will now likely argue that, having given in on this point, the Israeli government should be spared further American pressure. It is important that they not get away with it.

It is true, of course, that on Sunday Netanyahu used the words "Palestinian state," though he also used the less definitive term "Palestinian entity." That's news, though not exactly a breakthrough. Netanyahu has bowed to the reality that the United States and the world see the legitimacy of Palestinian national aspirations as a settled question, even though he doesn't agree. It's actually quite clever of him to present this as a "concession" -- after all, as Amitai Etzioni recently pointed out in Ha'aretz, commitment to a two-state solution was a concession that previous Israel governments already made. After taking office Netanyahu essentially revoked this commitment and now stands to reap rewards for re-offering it in diminished form.

If this is a compromise, it's an entirely rhetorical one. Netanyahu completely rejected Obama's call for a settlement freeze, which is necessary to make a coherent Palestinian state possible. He said that the Palestinian state will not include East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967's six-day war. He said that creation of a Palestinian state is contingent on an ever-weaker Fatah defeating Hamas, because "Israel will not negotiate with terrorists trying to destroy it." He demanded that Palestinians recognize, "verbally, honestly, bindingly," that Israel is a Jewish state, which he knows that Palestinians will not do, in part out of solidarity with Israeli Arabs, who make up more than a fifth of Israel's population. And he stressed, repeatedly, that any possible Palestinian state will have to be completely demilitarized, "without an army, without control of airspace, and with effective security safeguards." His lingering on the utter impotence of this hypothetical entity seemed determined to humiliate Palestinian moderates.

In other words, despite speculation that Netanyahu might rise to the occasion like Nixon going to China, he showed that he is exactly the man the left always said he was. The Obama administration will now have to increase the pressure on Israel or see its own credibility in the Middle East destroyed. Yet pro-Israel forces in the United States are certain to cry that Netanyahu has already made concessions and that the United States should now ease up on him.

That's why it's important for American Jews who support a two-state solution to realize that Obama shares their agenda and Netanyahu does not. "In a U.S.-Israel confrontation over this issue, the United States wins," says Rosenberg. "All it requires is will."

So far, the American Jewish community, including several Jewish members of Congress, has largely lined up behind the Obama administration on the crucial issue of freezing settlements. As Ha'aretz reported, "When Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu came to Capitol Hill for a May 18 meeting after being pressed by President Obama to freeze the expansion of West Bank settlements, he was 'stunned,' Netanyahu aides said, to hear what seemed like a well-coordinated attack against his stand on settlements. The criticism came from congressional leaders, key lawmakers dealing with foreign relations and even from a group of Jewish members."

"Because [Obama] is so popular and his sincerity is so impressive, the American public and the Jewish community as well understand, A, that he is sincere, and B, they realize what would be the repercussions of refusing to stand behind him," says Ori Nir, president of Americans for Peace Now. "And therefore what we're seeing is a Jewish community, including the organized Jewish community, which is not coming out against the president." As long as that remains true, Netanyahu has little leverage in the United States, and there is at least a tiny hint of a hope of peace.