A Few Thoughts on the Speech

I guess you could wrench some reason for optimism from PM Netanyahu’s speech today if you view it as an opening gambit, albeit couched in a lot of deal-breakers necessary to keep his rightist coalition intact. But that strikes me as a bit of a stretch. Most reactions in the US press are treating this as a major move by Netanyahu, endorsing the idea of a Palestinian state. But that seems doubly naive a) since that’s been the premise of US policy for almost 20 years as well as a goal accepted by several Israeli governments and b) because Netanyahu’s conditions amounted to deal breakers.

It’s been a premise of all the negotiations that a future Palestinian state would have to have some real restrictions on ‘heavy’ weaponry and wouldn’t be able to do things like invite foreign armies on to its soil. But what the Palestinian state Netanyahu described is something that lacks the key attributes that apply to almost all states, like statehood, for instance. It was a relabeling of what Netanyahu was pushing back in the mid-1990s, which is a sort of regional autonomy and self-government.

On the point of the need for the Palestinians to unequivocally recognize “Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people,” a few thoughts.

I’ve seen a few different wordings of this in the press. And the English language advanced transcript sent out by the Israeli government press office, there are a few different formulations. What to make of it? There are things you say when you are trying to settle differences and things you don’t.

All of the negotiations to this point have been premised on recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

Where the rubber meets the road in a real sense is on the issue of refugees and a Palestinian right of return. The Israelis will never accept a right of return for every descendent of the refugees of the 1948. It would make Israel no longer a Jewish state. If that’s the Palestinians condition, then really no deal is possible. But this is an issue that’s been worked through in great detail at the negotiating table. And there’ve been a number of rough outlines of a possible compromise — most of which allow a right of return in principle but satisfy the vast majority with compensation while allowing a small number to resettle in Israel, small enough not to substantially change the demographic make-up of the population.

Regardless of all these details, what Israel needs and has a right to ask for is a final settlement that, once all the compromises are made, recognizes the State of Israel and declares all the unclosed issues of borders and refugees closed forever. Facts and commitments are what treaties and negotiations and peaceful coexistence are made of. Getting the other side to ascribe to your national dreams and mythologies is too much to ask.

I hope I’m making the distinction clear. Perhaps it’s a subtle one. But it’s a critical one. Of course, any peace settlement will require the Palestinians to recognize Israel as what it is, a Jewish state, and put in the past any questions of whether a Jewish state, Israel, is legitimate in Palestine. But the upshot of Netanyahu’s speech has him almost demanding the Palestinians themselves become Zionists.

I think before he was arrested but during the Second Intifada, I saw an interview with Marwan Barghouti in which he said that for peace the Israelis would have to give up the ‘mentality of occupation.’ That phrase has rattled through my head ever since. And that, I think, is what Netanyahu’s speech was mainly about.

Late Update: Akiva Eldar, writing in Ha’aretz, puts it well

The demilitarization of the Palestinian state was mentioned in the Clinton guidelines, the Taba understandings and the Geneva accord, as was the right of return to Palestine, not Israel. The difference between these documents and the Bar-Ilan address is not only that the former recognized the Palestinians’ full rights to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The real difference lies in the tone – in the degrading and disrespectful nature of Netanyahu’s remarks. That’s not how one brings down a wall of enmity between two nations, that’s not how trust is built.

It’s hard to believe that a single Palestinian leader will be found who will buy the defective merchandise Netanyahu presented last night.