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Man of the Past

Netanyahu is a leader mired in history, not looking to the future

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Netanyahu speaking at the Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, yesterday. (Getty Images)

Before Benjamin Netanyahu stood at the lectern to give his foreign policy speech Sunday night, the most optimistic prognostications went like this: It took Charles de Gaulle, a man of the political right, to recognize that France must leave Algeria. It took a Richard Nixon to go to China, a Menachem Begin to give up the Sinai for peace. So perhaps Netanyahu, the lifetime nationalist, would recognize the demands that history has thrust upon him, change political direction, and lead Israel toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

So much for optimism. Responding to the diplomatic challenge posed by President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo, Netanyahu delivered an inadequate, internally contradictory and disappointing message.

Yes, he did say for the first time that he would be willing to accept a “demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state.” Formally, that’s a shift from Netanyahu’s previous rejection of a two-state solution. It’s a step forward, if measured against the positions that Netanyahu laid out when he first sought the leadership of the Likud in the early 1990s, when he wrote of allowing the Palestinians autonomy in four “counties” that would rule one-fifth of the West Bank.

Relative to Israel’s diplomatic record, however, the speech was a leap backward. Even the archetypical hawk, Ariel Sharon, had already accepted the principle of a two-state solution—however limited he actually expected the Palestinian state to be. Sharon recognized that Israeli rule over the West Bank was “occupation” and paid lip service to the U.S.-backed “road map” for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Netanyahu did neither (though he did acknowledge that “Israel is obligated by its international commitments”). Netanyahu’s erstwhile colleague on the right, Ehud Olmert, concluded that for Israel’s own sake, to maintain its Jewish majority, it would have to give up political rule over at least some Palestinian areas of Jerusalem. Netanyahu repeated the tired slogan of “Jerusalem remaining the united capital of Israel.”

At the center of his message was a deep contradiction. Netanyahu invited the Palestinian Authority to negotiate peace “without preconditions.” He then proceeded to lay out, at length, his own preconditions, which in turn contained further contradictions.

The Palestinian state to be reached at the end of the peace process, he asserted, must be toothless in every way—with no army, no control of its own airspace, and no authority to conclude military alliances. Yet as a condition for negotiating toward such statehood, Netanyahu said, “The Palestinian Authority must impose law and order in the Gaza Strip and overcome Hamas.”

In other words, in order to avoid any form of Palestinian unity government, any situation in which Hamas is even a silent partner to negotiations, the embryo of the powerless state-to-be must accomplish what Israel, with its powerful army, has yet to find a way to do. It is hard to imagine a reason for stating such a precondition except the desire to avoid negotiations, to preclude reaching the two-state solution to which Netanyahu was supposedly acceding. Indeed, the full list of publicly stated preconditions appeared designed to insure that no Palestinian leader could sit down to talks.

But Netanyahu’s speech was not aimed for Palestinian ears; it was intended for a domestic audience and for the American administration. To the Israeli audience, and especially to the supporters of his rightwing coalition, he recited Israeli history in terms meant to show that he had not deviated from his ideological path. Arab hostility toward Israel had no connection to “our presence in Judea, Samaria and Gaza,” he argued. His proof was that Arabs attacked the new state of Israel in 1948 and were ready to do so again in 1967. Those facts are correct. Yet it is also true that the Arab League peace initiative of 2002 offered Israel full peace based on a return to the pre-1967 boundaries. There was a time in Israeli history when such an offer would have celebrated with dancing in the streets as the victory of Zionism. One does not have to agree to the Arab initiative as written to see that it represents a historic change, an acceptance of Israel’s reality. Netanyahu, the son of the historian, does not see historic shifts.

Netanyahu’s presentation of the past points to the difference between his speech and Obama’s. Obama, seeking to reshape relations with the Muslim world, traveled to a Muslim city, and voiced respect for Muslim accomplishments. In addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he asked each side to see the other’s suffering—and then to put history in the past and to move forward. Netanyahu chose as his venue the most right-wing university campus in Israel. He called attention only to Israeli accomplishments, and recited a version of history that contained only Jewish suffering and Arab responsibility for the conflict. In the simplest terms, Obama showed that he understands the dynamics of reconciliation; Netanyahu did not.

The reason for giving the speech was what the prime minister called “international situation”—a delicate way of referring to U.S. diplomatic pressure. Responding to Obama, Netanyahu did grudgingly offer the words “Palestinian state.” At the same time, he flatly rejected Obama’s demand that Israel freeze settlement construction in accordance with the road map. His comment about “the need to have people live normal lives” in settlements “and let mothers and fathers raise their children” was an allusion to his claim that building in settlements is only meant to accommodate growing families. This is untrue. Government-initiated building projects continue to attract migration from Israel to the settlements. The administration knows this. The White House’s polite response to the speech masks cause for continuing tension.

Netanyahu will probably succeed in one respect: uttering the words “Palestinian state” without breaking up his coalition. True, last night settler rabbis were already calling for a mass prayer meeting at the Western Wall in response to “the intention to hand over parts of the Land to murderers.”

But politicians—in the Likud and the other parties of the right–are more likely to understand that he gave only lip service, and very little of that, to a two-state solution. He safely showed that he is a man of the past, not of the future.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 (Times Books), and a senior correspondent for The American Prospect. He blogs at

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Man of the Past

Netanyahu is a leader mired in history, not looking to the future

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