Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Speech
By Barry Rubin*
June 15, 2009
In a much-awaited speech about his new government’s foreign policy, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained Israel’s situation, experience, and views. Other countries, especially those which think they have all the answers for making peace, should pay close attention. They might actually learn something.
In a recent interview, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated:
“We do have a view about Israel’s security. We see historical, demographic, political, technological trends that are very troubling as to Israel’s future.”
This was a most peculiar thing for a secretary of state to say. In effect, she claims that the United States knows best for Israel. I cannot imagine an American secretary of state saying such a thing about any other country in the world in this manner.
But the truth is that this administration doesn’t know best for Israel. (Whether it even knows best for the United States is still a very doubtful proposition.) It simply doesn’t understand the realities of the region, the nature of Palestinian movements and their goals, and lots of other things.
Lots of European countries say the same thing. Indeed, in the current American administration there seem to be two competing strains of thinking that amount to the same thing: Israel is so strong that it can afford to make huge concessions; Israel is so weak that it must make huge concessions.”
This is the massive misunderstanding-compounded by hostility and divergent national interests-that Netanyahu set out to address.
First, he tried to explain the Iranian threat, and his timing-immediately following an intensification of that country’s dictatorship and hard-line regime-showed that he and others in Israel who have been warning about the government in Tehran have been (unfortunately) quite correct.
“The greatest danger confronting Israel, the Middle East, the entire world and human race, is the nexus between radical Islam and nuclear weapons.”
The greatest danger confronting Israel, etc., is not the Palestinian problem, nor is it Islamophobia, nor an insufficient supply of American apologies and empathy.
Netanyahu stresses that he agrees with President Barack Obama on “the idea of a regional peace that he is leading….I share the President’s desire to bring about a new era of reconciliation in our region.” He also stressed the importance of economic cooperation in the region.
By the way, conscious of the disastrous, albeit well-intentioned, proposal by then Prime Minister Shimon Peres for a “new Middle East” sounding as if Israeli technology would combine with Arab labor and money, Netanyahu phrased the idea in a much more modest way, making clear that Israel could learn from Arab developmental successes in the Gulf.
Regarding the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu made the following points:
–Let’s start “negotiations immediately, without preconditions.”
–His government will observe all its previous “international commitments and expects” the Palestinians to do the same.
–“I do not want war. No one in Israel wants war.”
He then asked a key question, one that the current U.S. government and many in Europe seem simply not to understand:
“If the advantages of peace are so evident, we must ask ourselves why peace remains so remote, even as our hand remains outstretched to peace. Why has this conflict continued for more than sixty years? In order to bring an end to the conflict, we must give an honest and forthright answer to the question: What is the root of the conflict?”
Reviewing the history of the conflict, he showed that it continued because, “The Arabs rejected any Jewish state, in any borders. Those who think that the continued enmity toward Israel is a product of our presence in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, [are] confusing cause and consequence.”
Let me pause here to explain what I knew beforehand and saw after the speech: the media reports focus on Netanyahu accepting the idea of a Palestinian state. This is a good thing to have recognized, but what is truly important is his effort to explain the Israeli interpretation of the conflict.
Speaking of the Palestinians he accurately said: “The closer we get to an agreement with them, the further they retreat and raise demands that are inconsistent with a true desire to end the conflict.
“Many good people have told us that withdrawal from territories is the key to peace with the Palestinians. Well, we withdrew. But the fact is that every withdrawal was met with massive waves of terror, by suicide bombers and thousands of missiles.”
This is the core Israel experience since the signing of the agreement with the PLO in 1993.
“We tried to withdraw with an agreement and without an agreement. We tried a partial withdrawal and a full withdrawal. In 2000 and again last year, Israel proposed an almost total withdrawal in exchange for an end to the conflict, and twice our offers were rejected.
“We evacuated every last inch of the Gaza strip, we uprooted tens of settlements and evicted thousands of Israelis from their homes, and in response we received a hail of missiles on our cities, towns and children.
“The claim that territorial withdrawals will bring peace with the Palestinians, or at least advance peace, has up till now not stood the test of reality.”
In fact, his arguments are so brief, clear, and accurate it is hard to resist just quoting what he said:
“In addition to this, Hamas in the south, like Hezbollah in the north, repeatedly proclaims their commitment to “liberate” the Israeli cities of Ashkelon, Beersheba, Acre and Haifa.
“Territorial withdrawals have not lessened the hatred, and to our regret, Palestinian moderates are not yet ready to say the simple words: Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and it will stay that way.”
And so Netanyahu explains what the Palestinian side must do if it wants peace and if it truly wants a state alongside Israel. Here are the steps needed:
First, “A fundamental prerequisite for ending the conflict is a public, binding and unequivocal Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.”
Second, “There must also be a clear understanding that the Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved outside Israel’s borders. For it is clear that any demand for resettling Palestinian refugees within Israel undermines Israel’s continued existence as the state of the Jewish people.”
Third, “The territory under Palestinian control must be demilitarized with ironclad security provisions for Israel.” Otherwise, “There is a real danger that an armed Palestinian state would emerge that would become another terrorist base against the Jewish state, such as the one in Gaza….In order to achieve peace, we must ensure that Palestinians will not be able to import missiles into their territory, to field an army, to close their airspace to us, or to make pacts with the likes of Hezbollah and Iran….Without this, sooner or later, these territories will become another Hamastan. And that we cannot accept.”
And here is the key sentence of the speech: “I told President Obama when I was in Washington that if we could agree on the substance, then the terminology would not pose a problem.”
If these conditions are met, “Then we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.”
There are two other issues the speech addressed. Regarding a freeze on construction in settlements, he politely refused.
The other point was a polite, indirect response to Obama’s Cairo speech and an assertion of Israel’s strength.
“Our people have already proven that we can do the impossible. Over the past 61 years, while constantly defending our existence, we have performed wonders. Our microchips are powering the world’s computers. Our medicines are treating diseases once considered incurable. Our drip irrigation is bringing arid lands back to life across the globe. And Israeli scientists are expanding the boundaries of human knowledge.”
Israel does not have any desperate need, to say the least, for more unilateral concessions. Time is on Israel’s side. It is the other side which faces disaster-social breakdown, economic stagnation, high levels of civil conflict.
Netanyahu concluded with an explanation of why Israel exists. While Obama probably did not intend this, he fell into the trap of defining Israel as the product of the Holocaust. Netanyahu responded:
“The right of the Jewish people to a state in the land of Israel does not derive from the catastrophes that have plagued our people. True, for 2000 years the Jewish people suffered expulsions, pogroms, blood libels, and massacres which culminated in a Holocaust- a suffering which has no parallel in human history.
“There are those who say that if the Holocaust had not occurred, the state of Israel would never have been established. But I say that if the state of Israel would have been established earlier, the Holocaust would not have occurred.
“This tragic history of powerlessness explains why the Jewish people need a sovereign power of self-defense.
“But our right to build our sovereign state here, in the land of Israel, arises from one simple fact: this is the homeland of the Jewish people; this is where our identity was forged.”
He concluded by quoting Israel’s Declaration of Independence but he specifically mentioned Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion as the author, a note of profound bipartisanship that few non-Israelis can understand.
“The Jewish people arose in the land of Israel and it was here that its spiritual, religious and political character was shaped. Here they attained their sovereignty, and here they bequeathed to the world their national and cultural treasures, and the most eternal of books.”
I think it is accurate to say that this speech expressed the most profound consensus in Israel on these issues and that the country will fully back up its prime minister on this policy. It is also a view of the region and the conflict far more accurate than that usually purveyed by others, both those who claim to have Israel’s “best interests” at heart, and those who would “wipe it off the map.”
*Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org
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