Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu mentioned the word “peace” 43 times in his much-anticipated speech at Bar-Ilan University today. He invoked the path of Yitzhak Rabin. This, from Israel’s leading hawk. It was a remarkable, must-read speech (here’s the text from the Prime Minister’s Office), with an unmistakable message to President Obama: We want to work with you. Our hand is unclenched.
Netanyahu is already being criticized by Palestinians and those on the political left — a drum beat that will no doubt intensify — for not going far enough. But critics miss a key point.
To understand just how big a gesture Netanyahu made today, you have to go back to Wednesday. That’s when he met with Likud Members of Knesset at his Jerusalem office. Here’s the Jerusalem Post’s take:
Every MK who spoke at the meeting pleaded with him not to utter the catchphrase “two states for two peoples” when he delivered his policy address on Sunday at Bar-Ilan University. The MKs reminded him of statements he made at a Likud central committee meeting in 2002, in which he warned against the dangers of even a demilitarized Palestinian state, and urged him, “Don’t found a Palestinian state at Bar-Ilan.”
Despite the intense pressure from his own party, today’s headline will be: Netanyahu Backs Two States. Here’s what he said:
In my vision of peace, in this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other.
These two realities – our connection to the land of Israel, and the Palestinian population living within it – have created deep divisions in Israeli society. But the truth is that we have much more that unites us than divides us …
If we receive this guarantee regarding demilitarization and Israel’s security needs, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the State of the Jewish people, then we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.
We have much more that unites us than divides us, Netanyahu said. That language might very well have been lifted verbatim from an Obama campaign speech.
It’s true that Netanyahu said he could not meet Obama’s call for no natural growth in Israeli settlements. But he did say: “We have no intention of building new settlements or of expropriating additional land for existing settlements.”
Again, to understand the extent of this give, the political context is necessary. Here’s David Horovitz’s analysis, in the Post:
The prime minister’s refusal to halt natural growth at existing settlements still leaves him in direct conflict with Washington. But Netanyahu will have privately explained to the Americans that meeting that restriction would not merely counter his own outlook, but also doom his government, and his Sunday night mention of the Gaza disengagement served as a timely reminder of Israel’s demonstrable willingness to dismantle even entire settlement communities – albeit, in Netanyahu’s view, for entirely misconceived reasons.
The New York Times said the White House reaction was “positive, if limited, focusing on what it called ‘the important step forward’ of Mr. Netanyahu’s support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
That is clearly a genuine recognition that this speech was a major Israeli give, especially given Netanyahu’s political realities. This White House, more than most, understands that words matter — words make worlds — and it no doubt appreciates that Netanyahu used the word “peace” more than forty times, stating unequivocally that “the advancement of peace” is “exceedingly important.”
“I also spoke about this with President Obama,” Netanyahu said, “and I fully support the idea of a regional peace that he is leading.”