Longer Analysis of Bibi’s Speech: Man of the Past

Gershom Gorenberg

My article analyzing Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech is up at the new Jewish web magazine, Tablet:

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 have 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. 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.”

Read the rest here, and come back to South Jerusalem to comment.

27 thoughts on “Longer Analysis of Bibi’s Speech: Man of the Past”

  1. You are right about the nature of natural growth however your criticism of Netanyahu’s insistence on the demilitarized nature of the state is off the mark. You don’t need to be able to enter a pact with Iran to fight trouble makers locally and similarly why the need for an air force if you are going to defend Fatach leaders from hamas assasination attempts?

    I think you are too harsh. Bibi is paving the way for an offer that isn’t far from what Barak offered.

  2. Zak Safra-
    But the problem is that what Barak offered wasn’t enough. Also Gershom’s comment that the so-called “Arab Peace Plan” is supposedly offering “full peace” in return for a full Israeli withdrawal happens to leave out a critical second condition….Israeli acceptance of the “Palestinian Right of Return”.

  3. Zak:

    “You don’t need to be able to enter a pact with Iran to fight trouble makers locally and similarly why the need for an air force if you are going to defend Fatach leaders from hamas assasination attempts”.

    I entirely understand why most Israelis would want a Palestinian state to be demilitarized and not to have control of its airspace – it is a position I strongly sympathize with. I wonder if Israelis have sufficient empathy with Palestinians to understand why this will be difficult for Palestinians to swallow – indeed possibly a deal-breaker. Just as Israelis see a major threat to them coming from a newly independent Palestine, so Palestinians see the prime threat to them as an independent state coming from Israel. An army is the only possible bulwark they have if Israel were to decide to launch a war against them on a flimsy provocation; control of airspace (and borders) is the only possible bulwark they have if Israel were to decide to blockade them.

    And if anyone thinks that these fears are unjustified, and that Israel would never launch a war on flimsy provocation, or seek to blockade a neighbor’s territory, perhaps they can at least have sufficient empathy and awareness of recent history to understand why it doesn’t look that way to most Palestinians. Or to put it another way, do people think that the Palestinians have any more reason to trust Israel’s good intentions than Israel has to trust the the good intentions of the Palestinians?

  4. Y Ben David: To most Israelis, Barak’s offer was as generous as could be. Its also pretty clear from Dennis Ross’ account of what went on at Camp David that Arafat was held responsible for the failure. Some might disagree with his assessment but he is one of the most qualified persons to comment. The main sticking points before Sharon came to power was division of Jerusalem, with the Israelis conceding that withdrawal from the Jordan valley would be necessary and the Palestinians reluctantly accepting Israel would not allow them to have a strong army.

    But the Palestinians said no. And have continued to say no.


    With a growing population and the moral high ground wrt occupation their leaders feel like time is on their side, and are happy to wait for Israel to make more concessions.

    I think Bibi upsets them because he is also willing to play the waiting game.

  5. David,

    I don’t think Israelis have a lot of empathy for Palestinian security concerns at all. They recognize that Palestinians have a natural anger towards them and think it would be foolish to allow for the creation of a mini Pakistan on their doorstep.

    In my opinion, if Palestinians want the benefits of statehood they will have to make do with that condition. Their is plenty they can get from Israel and the international community if they are willing to work with Israel’s conditions.

  6. David,

    Israel has proven time and time again its blatant disregard for Arabs life in general and Palestinians life in particular.

    Due to Israel’s immense military power, an armed Palestinian state would do the Palestinians as much good in protecting themselves from Israel as it did Georgia from Russia.

    A cursory examination is enough to reveal Israel’s inflation of the threat from Hamas – a feeble Palestinian army would be a gift for Israel, since it would allow it to keep sowing fear and paranioa in its own citizens while providing justification for brutal military assaults on Palesinians.

    Israel has no intention of relinquishing power. Now that Israel is on a collision course (of sort) with the U.S. it is looking to cultivate relations with Russia (another heavy world power that might be very happy to get a stronger hold in the Middle East via Israel, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/14/weekinreview/14levy.html?_r=2&ref=middleeast)

    When clearing up all the romantic notions, the grim picture is of a corrupt power playing on religious/national sentiments and past collective traumas as well as exploiting divisions in order to maintian control.

  7. David-
    I see you are giving us the “moral equivalency” argument.
    The Palestinians have 22 Arab states backing them, all of whom are hostile to one degree or another to Israel. Add to this hostile Muslim states like Iran. No one is threatening to annihilate the Palestinians. The Arab states, ALL of them, in their internal propaganda at least, preach jihad against Israel. I suggest you open your eyes and see what is really going on.

  8. YBD:

    No, I did not make any moral equivalency – indeed I didn’t raise any moral consideration on any side. I simply noted that the Palestinians sincerely believe that they have good reason to fear Israel, just as Israelis sincerely believe that they have good reason to fear the Palestinians. I asked Israelis if they have enough empathy with the Palestinians to understand those fears and the reasons for them – and I see that you have graphically (if doubtless unintentionally) answered my question.

    So thank you for doing so, but I am still hopeful that other Israelis are less self-absorbed than you are, and can see where the other side’s fears are coming from, even if they do not agree that those fears are justified.

  9. I agree that you’re not giving Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt; he still has to function as the leader of a coalition, one he must persuade of the wisdom of concessions. No doubt the analyses you marshal are correct, but he can’t make arguments decontextualized from the hard business of negotiations.

  10. Gershom,

    I also disagreed with your criticism of Netanyahu’s speaking at Bar Ilan, in comparison to Obama’s speech in Cairo.

    Why is it so hard to go to Cairo and give a speech apologizing for all the wrong things you’ve done? Isn’t it harder to go to the university that Yigal Amir studied in and call for a Palestinian state?

  11. Dennis Ross’s is one view only of what happened in 2000. There are others.

    Bibi seems like he is willing to shoot himself in the foot.

    Reacting to the hostility which is the symptom, instead of removing or rectifying it’s causes helps perpetuate this mutual death dance. It’s like an addiction… folks don’t want to let go of it such that life and death don’t matter anymore which is against all religion.

    Some leaps have to be made to get out of this because it goes nowhere good. We all know this. It’s not about being right when there is no one right. There is no one right here. Yet the heads keep butting…

  12. Suzanne I am all for making a Palestinian state as viable as possible, but I don’t think this would mean giving up the 3 main settlement blocs. I also don’t think its politically feasible.

    but if we are talking about causes and not symtoms, Obama has been very good about the culture of hate being fostered by the PA, as well as settlements.


  13. i caught that!! the ‘no preconditions’ and then a list of preconditions! thought i was going crazy. this is a complete non-starter. who in fatah can ever agree to this? what a joke. mainstream western press is drooling all over it though. ABC News called it “historic”!!! are they out of adjectives? recycling from Obama’s cairo speech? sigh.

  14. Zak- I realize that Obama has not spoken to the Israeli people yet. I hope he will- about fear of annihilation, and hate and mistrust that exists on both sides. Israeli’s should examine their own. And then lets look at the risks of going on this current trajectory ( and what that will look like). Israeli leaders don’t do this so Obama has to.

    What happens to the settlement blocs should be a matter negotiated, their existence not a pre-condition. The feasibility issue is the hole that Israel willingly fell into over the years and must be totally responsible for- the pain of removing them if they are an impediment to ending the conflict and ultimately Israel’s security. Most likely they will not be an issue that cannot be solved- still it’s not right that it be a pre-condition. it has to be a prize of successful negotiations, part of the deal. This detail is important, just like the larger issue of “right of return”. Psychological, maybe yes, but we are talking about many things psychological not the least of which are anger, fear and humiliation and the need to feel there is justice.

    So the conflict did not require that Israel expand settlements into territory not it’s own in violation of international law (to which it is a signatory).

    Whose decides what is “viable as possible”? Either viable or not. Or you do not have a deal- you have a prescription for more struggle and violence. Israel can make the leap and tolerate viability being the stronger party. Palestinians have to have a state that they can be responsible to and for. Then the work will be pulling the most extreme outliers towards that, making it attractive…(with help as necessary and accepted) and using force if necessary on the worst elements within. Should Palestinians, unified, choose to begin with a war to annihilate Israel ( this sounds so ridiculous to me) then Israel has the right to respond accordingly.

    Until then- it’s occupation with collective punishment , more violence ( growing potential) across the intended borders and no doubt more international sanctions and boycotts upon Israel.

  15. Suzanne,

    if there were a poll tomorrow that asked Israeli’s whether in principle they were in favor a Palestinian state that posed absolutely no threat to their lives, the vast majority of those polled would say they had no problem whatsoever.


  16. Zak:

    “In my opinion, if Palestinians want the benefits of statehood they will have to make do with that condition. Their is plenty they can get from Israel and the international community if they are willing to work with Israel’s conditions.”

    The problem is that one of the benefits of statehood that the Palestinians most want is the power to protect themselves from Israel. And my concern is that many Palestinians would rather have no state at all than one that denies them the right to control their own defence in this central area – and in that case, there will never be an agreement, and Israel loses out in the long run at least as much as they do.

    This is NOT to say that Israel’s own security concerns are illegitimate, or that Israel should compromise on those concerns for the sake of a peace agreement. It is, however, to suggest that Palestinians would be more likely to accept those hard terms if they were accompanied with some concrete proposals that would guarantee to them that Israel will not abuse the new state’s vulnerability. And if people don’t think Israel would abuse the Palestinians in this way, then she should be all the readier to propose such concrete guarantees, since it would not constrain her in actual practice.

    Which is where we get back to the question of empathy. Because as long as Israelis can’t understand the Palestinians’ fears, they are unlikely to come up with such proposals, or even to concede them without a fight if they are suggested by a third party. Which is why I would like to hope that – despite the evidence of YBD, and your own cynicism – enough Israelis will be able to see the Palestinians’ point of view that such proposals will be a prominent part of any genuine peace offer.

    Which is, of course, assuming that there will be a genuine peace offer, and there I’m afraid that my own cynicism about Mr Netanyahu comes to the fore …

  17. David,
    As long as the “Palestinians view” is calling Jews the “sons of apes and pigs” and saying that the Bible (unlike the Qu’ran) is a fraud and that there were no Israeli kingdoms and that there never was a Holy Temple on the Temple Mount and that Jews have no historic roots in Eretz Israel and as long as they praise suicide bombers and name streets after them (all of this is the official internal propaganda line of the Palestinians and fills their media), then don’t expect the Jews to have “empathy” for them.

  18. David and Suzanne:

    if the need for a Palestinian state is to “protect against israel” then there is nothing to talk about.

    No country in there right mind would arm people who want “protection” from the country arming them. And if you look at the PA’s history of using guns against Israelis, its not a good track record.

    If the need for a State is to enable an economy to grow and for families to be able to travel freely, then there is something to talk about.


    If the need for a state is

  19. Zak- No. The need for a Palestinian state is not to protect against Israel though this is one of the concerns that at this point Palestinians have ( with as good security reasons based on recent history as Israeli’s have). Any state, but especially this one, if it is to hold together must have a way to protect itself from internal chaos and outside threats, not only from Israel, but from other “elements” in the area for instance. It benefits Israel if Al Qaeda is repelled for instance. That need has to be satisfied or you have a failed state before it establishes firmly in which case you will hear some Israeli’s and folks here( USA) in the Jewish community saying (predictably) “See we told you! Palestinians never should have had a state! All we do is give give give and look what we get!”

    It’s not Israel’s place to bestow or grant statehood ( and arms) to the Palestinians; Israel accepts this ( or not) inevitability by ending occupation and allowing Palestinians to declare their own state. Palestinians and the larger Arab Muslim world in exchange formally accept Israel.

    As to the particulars, I doubt Israel would be responsible for arming Palestinians. And I cannot imagine a Palestine that has weapons that are not being closely watched, and more importantly, a Palestine that does not have to show it’s peaceful intentions towards Israel . By the same token, Israel would, for it’s part, have to restrain urges and control it’s out-sized fears having far more might and thus temptation. Israel may have the harder assignment.

    Y. B-D Palestinians have vivid memories too the least of which include name calling and religion-based taunts… denying their identity.

  20. Suzanne – you bring out the right wing fundamentalist in me 🙁

    Why should israel restrain its urges and the Palestinians not restrain theirs?

    If the Palestnians need weapons to maintain internal security, they will get them. The Likud already said that before Bibi gave the demilitarized state speech. An airforce is another thing totally, as would be missiles and other weapons that do tangibly threaten Israeli lives.

  21. Zak- I sympathize- sometimes I think I can argue both sides depending on what is being said:

    Zak: “Why should Israel restrain its urges and the Palestinians not restrain theirs?”

    That is not what I said or even inferred.

    I don’t think Israel can ask for more protection than Palestinians are entitled to. Mutual deterrence is the way to go. The clue is to put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. Besides they already have missiles and would have the means to get them if they were still at war- which they should not be after a peace agreement- especially one that includes the Arab neighbors.

    It’s humiliating to not have control over their airspace. Look at Gaza- it’s a fishbowl.

    It’s much better to have cooperation on the ground between governments. But, that said, if Israel does not itself demilitarize ( which it is not going to) two states, side by side, with missiles and bombs pointed at each other is much more stable than Israel having it’s big oppressive foot still on the nascent state. Palestinians (collectively- not divided) are wise enough not to agree to that.

    Israel, to my mind, has an out-sized out-of-proportion fear about annihilation understandable because of a polity that has been traumatized . But on the other side you also have a traumatized people.

    I just came back from Israel and the thought of i people really believing that the existential threat comes from outside ( as opposed to from inside), seeing what I saw, is totally preposterous.

  22. Zak:

    “if the need for a Palestinian state is to “protect against israel” then there is nothing to talk about.

    No country in there right mind would arm people who want “protection” from the country arming them. And if you look at the PA’s history of using guns against Israelis, its not a good track record.

    If the need for a State is to enable an economy to grow and for families to be able to travel freely, then there is something to talk about.”

    Read what I wrote. I explicitly said that Israel’s security concerns are legitimate, and that she should not compromise on them. This naturally means not arming the Palestinians with weapons that could be used against Israel. But I ALSO said that Israel should offer the Palestinians concrete measures that will guarantee that Israel will not abuse the Palestinians’ military weakness – in other words, that will protect the Palestinians from Israel without an army.

    For example (this is simply off the top of my head – I’m sure experienced negotiators would come up with something much better!), the borders could be manned by armed international troops, and Israel could promise (presumably on pain of a massive penalty for violations) that she will not cross Palestinian borders, infringe on Palestinian airspace, or interdict free movement to, from, or within Palestine except under a closely specified set of circumstances. A mutually agreed third party (with independent observers on the ground) would rule on whether those circumstances had or had not been met. Do you think Israelis and Palestinians could accept something along those general lines?

  23. David,

    After reading parts of Dennis Ross’ exhaustive description of the day by day proceedings whilst he was top negotiator – I believe that the military arrangements of the type you discuss were actually agreed on by both sides. Israel did agree to withdraw from the Jordan Valley but with the right to redeploy in the event of an emergency.

    And I do believe we have to offer concrete measures to make independence a reality. Personally, I would go a very log way towards seeking the best possible arrangement for a healthy Palestinian state, if it posed no security threat to me. But that is THE sacred element for me and I believe most Israelis. It is in Israel’s interest to live peacefully with the Palestinians.

  24. Suzanne,

    Whilst I think you are right bring up the Palestinian feeling of humiliation in this conflict, I still think you are unrealistic on security.

    There are acceptable risks and unacceptable risks.

    Your example of two states with missiles pointing at each other is possibly the very worst case scenario and I would ask you to look at any number of historical examples of states that find such a reality unacceptable. The Cuban missile crisis and the recent US-European-Russian spat are just two examples. But why go that far. Look at what a disaster the Lebanon-Israel border is. With toothless UN resolutions you can understand why Israel wouldn’t be able to tolerate yet another extremist militia on its border. Is that the kind of stability you want?

  25. I am not going that far really- it’s just taking things to an extreme for argument’s sake. ie that having mutual deterrence is better than having Israel still threatening Palestinians who would have no means to defend themselves. This is how you get suicide bombers.

    Regarding acceptable and unacceptable risks, for me the current trajectory seems unacceptable where the better choice would be agreeing to a fully viable Palestinian state. As I said, on no path is there no risk. but it seems to me there are many more possible positive effects from the latter than continuing on the present road.

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