Netanyahu’s Olive Branch

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.”

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11 Responses to “Netanyahu’s Olive Branch”

  1. adam r says:

    great post josh – im glad your back writing!

  2. Gerald says:

    And what was the Palestinian response to Bibi’s speech? This is from Haaretz:

    … it seems that Abed Rabbo and his associates chose an insulting and petty reaction to the speech because they sensed that they could. It was only a few days ago that Erekat said that for the first time in history the Palestinians were in a position of power in negotiations with Israel. The Palestinians sensed that Netanyahu, who is not overly popular in Washington and with international community, was easy pray and therefore subject to ridicule, regardless of the content of his speech. Dubbing the Israeli Prime Minister a “conman” mere moments after he agreed to a two-state solution was not an appropriate reaction.

    So again, an Israeli prime minister offers peace and the Palestinians reject the offer. How many times do we have to play the same record?

  3. Gerald says:

    on another subject: aren’t you a little surprised that the Obama administration has said so little about the huge protests happening in Iran? Wouldn’t it be in the U.S. interest to support those protests, which after all are only calling for free and fair elections. Or, as he suggested in Cairo, is Obama loath to “interfere” in another state’s internal affairs because he doesn’t want to “dictate” our values and policies to another nation? Where does “respect” end and “values” begin?

  4. Neurotic Dem says:

    Adam,
    Many thanks! Glad you’re reading!
    G —
    I wouldn’t go that far. First, I think the notion of Palestinians reacting as they did “because they could” is baseless media conjecture. How does Haaretz know?
    Second, as much as I believe this was a critical and courageous speech by Netanyahu, there was plenty here that would be hard — honestly — for Palestinians to swallow. Netanyahu presented the Jewish narrative, starting with the Bible, and moving through the 20th century, putting the blame squarely at the feet of the Palestinians and Arabs. He rejected the right of Palestinian return — which is correct, of course, and which he had to do for his own political reasons, but which also undermines a central facet of Palestinian nationalism. Particularly tough to swallow must have been Netanyahu’s stand that some settlements will continue to grow, and his casting of settlers as part of “a principled, pioneering and Zionist public.”
    This is not at all to diminish what Netanyahu said, or the extent of his give.
    Would I love it if Palestinian moderates stood up and cheered this speech? Sure. But how realistic is that? Don’t those moderates face the exact same political realities and pressures as Netanyahu, from the other side?
    Let’s see if, in the coming days, some Palestinian moderates acknowledge the shifts in Netanyahu’s speech as at the very least an opening. That, to me, would be progress.
    I think you are really overstating the case, though, when you say that Netanyahu “offered peace” and the Palestians “rejected the offer.” What Netanyahu did was make an important start at shifting the tone.
    The two sides don’t trust each other. Part of what has to happen for any talks to be successful is that the Obama administration has to find ways to start facilitating trust.
    -ND

  5. Neurotic Dem says:

    G —
    Just saw your post on Iran.
    I think the smart thing to do — at this point — is for the Obama administration to walk the line they have been walking. If America came in now and started ripping the Iranians for cheating, it would likely have the exact opposite impact of what we want. It would embolden the hardliners to crack down, and further entrench Ahmadinejad. This is an extremely fluid situation. The Mullahs are apparently looking at the results — and could have the authority to nullify the election. It seems pretty unlikely, but it also seemed unlikely that there would still be tens of thousands of moderate Iranians protesting in the street.
    -ND

  6. Neurotic Dem says:

    G,
    I was in the process of posting a response to your point about the Palestinian reaction, and was editing it, when I went back and started to read more.
    This is from JTA, and it’s pretty discouraging:

    Palestinian Authority officials said Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy speech would trigger a new intifada.

    “The speech has destroyed all initiatives and expectations,” said a statement issued from PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ office following Netanyahu’s policy speech on Sunday at Bar Ilan University. “It has also placed restrictions on all efforts to achieve peace and constitutes a clear challenge to the Palestinian, Arab and American positions.

    An Abbas aide told the Jerusalem Post that “It’s obvious, in the aftermath of this speech, that we are headed toward another round of violence and bloodshed.”


    Also, this from JTA:

    Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat complained that by taking core issues like Jerusalem and refugees off the table, the new Israeli leader had closed the door on peace talks.

    “Netanyahu will have to wait a thousand years to find a single Palestinian who will cooperate with him on the basis of his Bar-Ilan speech,” Erakat declared.

    Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, whose views carry considerable clout in the Arab world, said Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state was “destroying the chances for peace.”

    …..
    I understand that Netanyahu’s speech, viewed through Palestinian eyes — taking right of Palestinian return off the table, praising the settlers, indicating that natural growth of settlements would continue — is going to be tough to swallow. I’m sure it was equally hard to hear Netanyahu lay out the Jewish narrative. I also get that Palestinian leaders, like Netanyahu, face intense political pressures from their own constituents.
    But I have to say — I hope Washington is paying attention to these vitriolic comments.
    Really? Predicting (and perhaps implicitly condoning) another round of bloodshed in response to what the White House deemed an important step by Netanyahu?
    Will one moderate Palestinian leader step forward to acknowledge that — even if it is far from perfect — Netanyahu has taken what for him is a huge step?
    –ND

  7. Gerald says:

    Well, it seems Jeffrey Goldberg agrees with me re: Obama and Iran:
    http://jeffreygoldberg.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/06/time_for_an_obama_speech.php

  8. Gerald says:

    To your other point:

    Gerald to Erakat: let’s wait 1,000 years.

  9. Neurotic Dem says:

    Re Goldberg and G, here’s Obama’s comment today on the situation in Iran:

    It would be wrong for me to be silent about what we’ve seen on the television over the last few days. And what I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was. And they should know that the world is watching.

    And particularly to the youth of Iran, I want them to know that we in the United States do not want to make any decisions for the Iranians, but we do believe that the Iranian people and their voices should be heard and respected.

  10. Loyal says:

    I have heard a number of folks in the American thinkocracy suggesting that establishing boundries first is the way to move forward . I don’t think these Palestinian responses will have any traction in the US and I believe the narrative will be shifting. The immediate reaction was predictable. Power politics will shape the longer term.
    Loyal

  11. Neurotic Dem says:

    Loyal,
    my point is the Palestinian response should have some traction — or we should be trying to influence them through back channels not to respond this way. There’s a great editorial in the WSJ on this, which concludes:

    “As for the Palestinians, for too long they have practiced a kind of fantasy politics, in which all right was on their side, concession was dishonor, and mistakes never had consequences. It hasn’t earned them much. Mr. Netanyahu’s speech now offers them the choice between fantasy and statehood. Judging from early reactions, they’re choosing wrongly again.”

    -ND

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