First, an historical fact which is not open to interpretation. Netanyahu broke substantial new ground in his speech. No Israeli prime minster before Ehud Barak spoke openly about Israel recognizing Palestinian sovereignty. Not because they couldn't imagine such a thing, but because it was assumed such Israeli recognition was an important negotiating chip, to be played at the right time. Barak played it at Camp David in July 2000, and in return got praise from President Clinton which no-one remembered half a year later. At the time, however, Barak pretended nothing he had offered was real unless an agreement was reached, as if he could take back what he had offered. So Barak never gave an official speech recognizing Palestine. Nor did Sharon. Olmert may have: it was certainly his position, and since he was prime minster later than Barak, the reluctance to speak openly was gone. Yet Olmert presided over a center-left Israeli government. Netanyahu spoke yesterday about Israel's being the first to recognize a sovereign Palestine, if only the Palestinians reach an agreement with us. He said this in a speech watched by millions, as the head of a right-wing Israeli coalition.
We've come a long way from Golda Meir saying "there is no Palestinian nation", and indeed, we've come a long way from the positions of Yitzchak Rabin, remembered worldwide as a brave Israeli leader seeking peace: Rabin never said there'd be a sovereign Palestine, he never intended to move back to the lines of 1967, and he never would have dreamed of dividing Jerusalem. On the first two, Netanyahu, for all his verbal gymnastics, is to Rabin's left. Moreover, the assumption all over Israel's media today is that he enjoys broad support in the Israeli electorate for his positions.
Not that you'll find any of this in the international media's reports. Here's the New York Times:
His speech broke no new ground concerning the peace process, but it was not expected to. Israeli officials said that Mr. Netanyahu could hardly lay out new proposals to an American audience without telling his own people first.The Economist will appear in print only on Friday, but their first web response is that
Palestinian officials were dismissive of Mr. Netanyahu’s message, saying it included no new concessions along with the new demands.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, addresses a joint session of Congress with a speech that was big on hype but short on substanceHaaretz, far to the left of either the NYT or The Economist, thunders that
Netanyahu wasted the generous credit he got from his American hosts to cast accusations at the Palestinians and impose endless obstacles in connection with the core issues. Instead of accepting the principle that the border between Israel and the Palestinian state would be based on the 1967 lines, Netanyahu declared that the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers in Judea and Samaria.What are Netanyahu's conditions which are so far from reality, pray tell? First, there's his demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jews, as Palestine will be that of the Palestinians. It seems a perfectly reasonable requirement, unless both sides agree on an end to the conflict and relinquishing of all future demands in an agreement which contains no right of return. Essentially, the two demands are the same thing: if there's no right of return and there is an end of conflict, then the Palestinians indeed don't need to proclaim their recognition of Israel being the Jewish State. So far no Palestinian leader has ever said openly that he will relinquish the demand for a right of return, or even hinted that he might recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Until a democratically elected Palestinian leadership which can deliver on its words does this, there will be no peace.
He couched his readiness to make far-reaching concessions within endless conditions that have no relation to reality.
Netanyahu then said Israel would never move back to the lines of 1967. This is also a fact. No Israeli government ever will. The question is what happens to the 5%, give or take, which won't be relinquished, and what will be given in return. This has been the topic of much discussion between negotiators over the past 18 years, and will continue for a while yet. What would Haaretz have expected? That Netanyahu say he'll dismantle Modi'in Illit?
Finally, there are Netanyahu's demands that Palestine be demilitarized, a demand any sane (and electable) Israeli leader will always make; and the demand for a military presence along the Jordan River. I'm not enough of a military man to know how extremely essential this really is, especially if Palestine itself is demilitarized; it's aimed against Jordan and Iraq, not the Palestinians.
Then there's Jerusalem. Netanyahu says it can't be divided, and of course he's right. Barak and Olmert offered to divide it, but fortunately the Palestinians weren't interested. I certainly hope that Netanyahu's position will be that of all future prime minsters, since the reality of dividing Jerusalem will never bring peace.
The summary of all this is that Netanyahu is now staking roughly the same positions his predecessors took, from 2000 onwards, and is well to the left of Rabin and Peres in the 1990s. He - and they - enjoyed a broad consensual support among Israel's voters, now bolstered by a prime minster of the political right. The Israeli electorate is willing - some are eager - to live alongside a sovereign Palestine, but on conditions the Palestinians cannot remotely accept. So there will be no peace anytime soon, as all reasonable observers know, and have known for years.
The main thing to regret is that Netanyahu didn't give this speech two years ago. Had he spoken this way when he and Obama were both new in their jobs, the chemistry between them would have been much better, and the positions Obama would have taken would have been different. Look how close they are right now, in spite of all the smoke and mirrors about profound disagreements. Precisely because peace between Israelis and Palestinians is not possible in our generation, it is crucial that Israel's leaders always position themselves as wisely as possible. This means doing everything reasonable to maintain active good will between Israel and the US, and giving Israel's dwindling friends in Europe something to work with. Had yesterday's speech been the official position of Netanyahu's government all along, as it has been the position of most of the electorate, this would have been easier to do.