Netanyahu’s Speech: Coarse, but airs Israel’s point of view

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister   Source: www.yglesias.thinkprogress.org

Well, actually, Israel has several points of view.  The one expressed by Netanyahu is just one of them.  Nevertheless, in the “dialogue of civilizations” launched by expert bridge-builder Barack Obama in Cairo earlier this month, when he raised the Arab-Israeli conflict as an obstacle to dialogue, one voice was not heard.  Israel’s.  It’s like negotiating an end to the global financial crisis without inviting China.

Benjamin Netanyahu is no Barack Obama.  He is no Shimon Peres.  He lacks their diplomatic skill.  I have had extensive meetings with him on a number of occasions, and found him to be a man enthused with his own self-importance.  Just like Barack Obama and Shimon Peres, but a lot less charming.  What a discovery?  Political leaders are vain.  Yet Netanyahu proved an effective leader as Israel’s finance minister, freeing up the economy to realize its potential.  Can he be an effective and visionary prime minister his second time around?  This speech falls short of the mark.

What Netanyahu did in his speech yesterday (see text) was to say, Wait a minute!  Listen to our point of view! 

Obama made efforts to recognize the Arab narrative in his speech in Cairo.  He recognized the Jewish narrative in part by discussing the Holocaust.  Netanyahu gave voice to another part of the Jewish narrative – the claim to the land in Israel.

But the Arab reaction has been sour.  Mubarak is angry, saying that the requirement that Palestinians acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, a cornerstone of Netanyahu’s speech, “scuttles the chances for peace,” and that no one in Cairo will answer the phone when Netanyahu calls.

It’s not a very radical idea.  Given the Arab insistence on the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to Israel, an act that would destroy Israel as a Jewish state, it’s not asking a lot.  The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which Obama and some Israeli leaders have applauded, called for a just solution to the refugee problem, according to U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194, which many insist calls for a right of return (“Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date…”)

Arguably, Obama’s conciliatory speech in Cairo opened the door for this sharp Arab reaction to Netanyahu’s speech.  Bush pushed the Arabs to accept Israel’s narrative; Obama is pushing Israel to accept the Arab narrative.  Obama may have inadvertently created huge expectations on the Arab street for Israeli concessions.

There is a deal to be had in the Arab-Israeli conflict.  But both sides have to make concessions.  The deal is:  the dismantling of most West Bank settlements in exchange for Jerusalem.  Israel gets sovereignty over Jerusalem – because no cities, including Berlin, remain divided over the long term – with substantive measures to ensure that Muslim/Palestinian interests in Jerusalem, especially around the holy sites, are overseen by Muslims and Palestinians, much as the Ottomans allowed the French and Russians to oversee their holy sites in centuries past.  In exchange, Israel dismantles most West Bank settlements, forcing tens of thousands, perhaps over a hundred thousand Jewish people to relocate inside Israel behind agreed borders.  As George Bush agreed to, some Israeli settlement blocks, major cities in place for over forty years, generally in and around Jerusalem and very close to the Green Line, perhaps representing some eighty thousand people, will remain as part of Israel.  The Palestinians get a viable, contiguous state in the West Bank with transportation links to Gaza.

That is a deal in which both sides make concessions.  The Arab Peace Initiative demands one-sided concessions from Israel in exchange for the Arabs agreeing not to make war.  It’s like Vito Corleone making you an offer you can’t refuse.

The only problem with the Jerusalem-for-Settlements idea is that Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims will never go for it.  It’s become too emotional a part of their narrative.  Jerusalem is the third holiest city of Islam.

Putting aside such discussions of what is fair, the key question in all of this is, Whose side is time on?  Given demographic realities, it seems that time is on the Arab/Muslim side.  Peres and others on Israel’s left acknowledge this, which has underpinned their efforts to move quickly to a negotiated settlement.  The right in Israel emphasizes their neighbors’ weaknesses – economic and political — and argue that time is on Israel’s side, a potentially risky misconception. 

Netanyahu, spokesman of the right, basically said in his speech, Here is our position; now come to us.  He has adopted the Arab strategy:  stake out a hard line and let others begin concessions.  Netanyahu has stood up to Barack Obama, maybe not the last foreign leader to do so.  Read Jeffrey Goldberg for insight into how Mr. Netanyahu thinks.

Politics in Israel is dysfunctional, leaving that nation bereft of visionary leadership.  It takes so much effort to make and hold coalitions together there, that politicians have little time for policy making.  Political reform is needed, included raising the minimum for parties to be seated in parliament.  The religious parties must be folded into larger groupings.  If things remain as they are, Israeli leaders will miss opportunities, and for tiny Israel with so few friends in the world, this could be an existential threat.

Photo:  Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister.   Source:  www.yglesias.thinkprogress.org

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