June 18, 2009.
In the ordinary course of Middle Eastern politics, having a “hardline” Israeli
Prime Minster call for a freeze on new settlement construction and propose
immediate negotiations in order to create a Palestinian state might be seen as a
breakthrough, particularly among those who loudly profess to believe in peace.
But that’s not how it’s playing out for Benjamin Netanyahu.
On Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu delivered a detailed speech in which he hailed
President Obama’s “desire to bring about a new era of reconciliation in our
region.” He said he was “willing to meet” with Arab leaders “at any time, at
any place, in Damascus, in Riyadh, in Beirut and in Jerusalem as well” to make
He invited Arab entrepreneurs to “assist the Palestinians and us to give
the economy a jump-start.” He committed his government to all of Israel’s
international agreements, many of which he had previously opposed. He said
“we have no intention to build new settlements or set aside land for new
Most significantly, Mr. Netanyahu broke with much of his own Likud party’s
rank-and-file to acknowledge Israel’s interest in an independent Palestine. “In
my vision of peace,” he said, “there are two free peoples living side by side in
this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its
flag, anthem and government, with neither one threatening its neighbor’s
security and existence.”
To this, the Palestinian reaction was to say the speech was “worthless,”
“nothing but a hoax,” that it had “destroyed all peace initiatives and a solution,” and that Mr. Netanyahu was “a liar and a crook.” And that was
the reaction among the Palestinian moderates. Only Hamas and the Huffington
Post were more withering.
Much of that reaction can be put down to the conditions Mr. Netanyahu laid
down for Palestinian statehood. He insisted the state be demilitarized; that
Palestinian refugees not be resettled within Israel; and that Palestinians
recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The Prime Minister also called for Jerusalem
to remain Israel’s united capital.
We have our doubts on that last score: Too many Palestinians live in East
Jerusalem (an area rarely visited by Jewish Israelis) for it to remain in Israeli
hands after any final settlement, though a deal would have to guarantee Israeli
sovereignty over the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.
Then again, it’s hard to argue with Mr. Netanyahu’s other points. The
transformation of the Gaza Strip into an armed and hostile Hamas enclave is
evidence enough of why any future Palestinian state would have to be
demilitarized. And that was after Israel uprooted its settlements.
Nor should the thought of Israel as a Jewish state be controversial: That’s how
it was conceived by the U.N. resolution that helped bring it into existence, and
that’s how it was recognized by Harry Truman minutes after it declared
The idea that a state can privilege a certain religion isn’t strange, either
— witness the Church of England — and needn’t be invidious as long as it
respects the religious traditions of all its citizens, as Israel does. As for the
refugees, it’s hard to understand the logic of simultaneously demanding a
Palestinian state, free of Jewish settlements, while also insisting on Israel itself
as a second Palestinian homeland.
Responding to Mr. Netanyahu’s speech, White House press secretary Robert
Gibbs called it an “important step forward,” but offered little more than that.
The Administration could help matters more by providing the Israelis with
greater assurances that they won’t simultaneously demand further Israeli
concessions while doing nothing serious to stop Iran — a leading patron of
Hamas — from getting nuclear weapons. A Palestinian state poses enough
challenges to Israeli security without it being an atomic spearpoint.
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.