Good? Bad? Netanyahu speech draws mixed reactions

Was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s much-reported speech Sunday a step forward or just more of the same? The reactions have been mixed.

The White House and some peace advocates have welcomed his acceptance, for the first time, of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Palestinian leaders, and others, assailed the speech as setting so many conditions and qualifications as to be meaningless or a step backward.

A June 14 White House statement said, “The President welcomes the important step forward in Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech.” The statement reiterated President Obama’s commitment to “two states, a Jewish state of Israel and an independent Palestine, in the historic homeland of both peoples.”

That reference to “historic homeland of both peoples” was a small but significant difference from language used by Netanyahu, who described the territory of the two states as only the historic homeland of the Jewish people.

The White House statement also made reference to all parties fulfilling necessary “obligations and responsibilities” — an indirect restatement of the president’s insistence that, among other steps, Israeli settlement expansion must stop.

'I think the president believes that there is a long way to go, and many twists and turns in the road to get there, but is pleased thus far with the progress that's being made,' White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters aboard Air Force One on Monday. 'And I think yesterday's speech certainly is a big part of that.'

Gibbs said, “We're working and discussing with all involved how we can move this process forward, how we can create a two-state solution whereby Israel and the Palestinians live side by side in peace and security. I think what Mr. Netanyahu said yesterday is an important part of that reform.”

J Street, the progressive American Jewish “pro-Israel, pro-peace” advocacy group, also welcomed Netanyahu’s acceptance of the principle that a Palestinian state should exist alongside the state of Israel. At the same time, J Street said, “We regret his failure to acknowledge Israel’s commitment to a full settlement freeze on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem (including natural growth). President Obama has rightly insisted on a settlement freeze not as an end in itself, but as an essential step to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution.”

The Jewish American group also noted and agreed with Netanyahu’s statement that negotiations must begin “immediately without preconditions” on a final status agreement that sets the borders of Israel and the new Palestinian state.

“To be successful, the United States must play an assertive leadership role in this effort and the talks must include other regional actors and international leaders,” J Street said. “President Obama should seize this moment to push for a comprehensive, regional agreement. The usual blame game and finger pointing on all sides cannot be allowed to bog down a serious attempt for resolution of the conflict as the window of opportunity for a successful two-state solution is rapidly closing.”

Palestinian leaders voiced sharply negative reactions to Netanyahu’s speech. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the speech was so riddled with conditions that he 'left nothing for negotiations.' Among other things, the Israeli prime minister insisted that Jerusalem would be the unified capital of Israel, a slap at one of the Palestinians’ core positions — and the position of the United Nations, the Arab Peace Initiative and others — that East Jerusalem would be the capital of the Palestinian state.

'Netanyahu wants to put us in a situation where he looks like he offered something, and we said no,' Erekat said. 'Netanyahu's speech was very clear. He rejects the two-state solution.'

Palestinian political analyst Ghassan Khatib called Netanyahu’s statements on a Palestinian state “farcical.”

“The entity that Netanyahu described, Khatib said, would be so subordinate that it “does not qualify it as a state.” In addition, “the preconditions he stipulated for its establishment rendered the negotiations process … as he meant it to be (and as it has been so far), namely not at all.”

“Netanyahu's speech represents a serious challenge to the peace camp in Israel, the peace camp in the Arab world, including among the Palestinians and, more importantly, the new American administration,” Khatib said. “The main conclusion that can be drawn from the speech is that Netanyahu has given priority to the needs and requirements of his right-wing constituency and treated with a great deal of contempt the requirements and needs of everyone else.”

“The American administration must now work hard to repair the damage to domestic public opinion in both Israel and among the Palestinians that Netanyahu's speech has caused. Creating a more conducive public debate and moderating the internal political discourse on both sides is crucial to a successful and meaningful peace process.”

Other perspectives were provided by retired Israeli Brigadier General Israela Oron, in an interview in The Mideast Peace Pulse blog published by the pro-two-state Israel Policy Forum. A former deputy national security adviser at the National Security Council, she is a peace advocate who was on the steering committee of the independent Israeli-Palestinian Geneva Accord peace proposals.

Oron offered insights on Netanyahu’s remarks in the context of Israeli politics.

“From the Prime Minister's point of view,” she said, “it was a significant step toward the left, especially because he faces and will continue to face in the future a great deal of opposition from his camp, and from his natural allies as he calls them. This is important to bear in mind.”

However, she said, “the things he said were already accepted by many Israeli leaders for almost 15 years. We already understand that the Palestinians should have their own state. He made the point that leaders should be able to read the map of reality. He agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, with many conditions attached, because he realizes that the reality has changed. I would suggest that he read the map again because reality has changed much more than he thinks. He still has much further to go in order to adjust to the real reality.”

“Netanyahu is not ready to freeze settlements and if the situation on the ground will not change, if the Palestinians will not be able to sense that they have a real future, they might choose violence again,” Oron said. “And then Bibi [Israelis’ nickname for Netanyahu] will be able to say that he cannot make peace with the Palestinians because he cannot pay a price for terror.”

“Also,” she said, “his talk of economic peace is not enough. It is not a stand-alone item. There must also be progress in the political arena; economic peace is connected to many other parameters and does not occur in a vacuum.”

Asked if she thought that Netanyahu had had a “genuine change of heart,” Oron replied:

“I think it was clear, that Netanyahu does not believe that a Palestinian state is in Israel's interests. He managed to say these words because of how he views changes in the current circumstances and his need to react to them. There are some who think that the fact that he said it is the most important thing. But if he doesn't believe it, if he said it only because he was pressured to say it, then his level of commitment will reflect that. And if so, in order to get to the point of actual implementation, much more pressure will be needed from the U.S. and the EU.”

At the same time, the retired Israeli general said, “from an internal Israeli perspective, looking at the Israeli political map, it was definitely a big step. It is not yet clear just how big a step, however. He is the second Likud leader after Sharon to acknowledge that we do not want to rule over another people (Ehud Olmert was already in Kadima when he adopted this principle.) … But we have to all realize that Bibi's Likud today is much more right-wing than Sharon's Likud was, and that includes very right-wing ideologues.” “Given the makeup of the current Likud, this is indeed a significant step forward for Bibi and his party.”

suewebb @ pww.org