May 28, 2011
Netanyahu's Victory LapBy Jerold S. Auerbach
Within a remarkable ten-day span Prime Minister Netanyahu forcefully articulated peace terms for Israel and the Palestinians. In speeches to the Knesset and Congress, he thwarted President Obama's proposals for Israeli capitulation while marginalizing Mahmoud Abbas for as long as the Palestinian Authority remains wedded to its new partnership with Hamas. Climaxed by his enthusiastic reception in Congress only days after his chilly public confrontation with the American president, it was a bravura performance.
Netanyahu skillfully avoided the trap set by Obama's emphasis on Israel's return to "1967 borders" (accompanied by "land swaps"), which are actually the indefensible 1949 armistice lines. He shifted the focus from what Israel must do to what is required of the Palestinian Authority. As he had told Israelis of his willingness to accept a Palestinian state, so he insisted that President Abbas must say to his people what Palestinians have never heard from their leaders: "I will accept a Jewish state."
Netanyahu was adamant that the division of land between Israelis and Palestinians west of the Jordan River must reflect demographic changes since 1967. The Jewish people, he asserted, "are not foreign occupiers" in their own biblical homeland. This means that new settlements in Judea and Samaria (some, if not all) must remain part of Israel. Jerusalem, where only the Jewish state has protected "freedom of worship for all faiths," will remain "the united capital of Israel."
Acceding to President Obama's reference to a future Palestinian state as the homeland of the Palestinian people, Netanyahu affirmed the right of Palestinians "from around the world" to immigrate there just as Jews have returned to Israel. But, he reiterated, this requires that the Palestinian refugee problem, used ever since 1948 to stoke fury against the Jewish state, "will be resolved outside the borders of Israel."
Israel, Netanyahu assured Congress, was prepared to negotiate peace with any partner who is committed to peace. But "Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government," he asserted, that is "backed by the Palestinian version of Al Qaeda." That means Hamas.
Netanyahu said little to Congress that he had not already told the Knesset ten days earlier, and reiterated to AIPAC the day before. But after his frosty televised encounter with Obama, when the prime minister bluntly reminded the president that "a peace based on illusions will crash eventually on the rocks of Middle Eastern reality," the warmth of his Congressional reception provided a sharp contrast.
Israel, he told Congress appreciatively, "has no better friend than America. And America has no better friend than Israel. We stand together to defend democracy." Effusively praising the United States (and graciously including President Obama) for its "steadfast commitment to Israel's security," he lacerated the international community for its indifference to calls for Israel's destruction. "But not you," Netanyahu added. "History will salute you, America."
He hailed "courageous Arab protesters," struggling for their human rights throughout the Middle East. And he reminded the world that among 300 million Arabs living there, fewer than one-half of one-percent "enjoy real democratic rights . . . and they are all citizens of Israel." How many of them, one wonders, would willingly relocate their villages to Palestine in land swaps?
Netanyahu, The New York Times complained, was "giving no ground on the major stumbling blocks to a peace agreement." To the contrary: not only did he explicitly state his willingness to relinquish (some) settlements; he left room for "creative solutions" to the Jerusalem conundrum, which could allow for the redrawing of boundaries to establish a Palestinian capital there.
Predictably, Times pundit Thomas Friedman (aligned with the Israeli left ever since his undergraduate years) went ballistic over Netanyahu's speech. Accusing the prime minister of verging on becoming "the Hosni Mubarak of the peace process," Friedman called upon thousands of West Bank Palestinians and Arab youth delegations to march on Jerusalem every Friday "with a clear peace message" -- a gratuitous recipe for violent confrontations.
Friedman's dire prediction, that Israel will eventually be forced by its own recalcitrance to absorb the entire West Bank and rule over a Palestinian majority, is highly unlikely. Reliable demographic projections indicate that the current substantial Jewish majority between the Jordan and Mediterranean will only increase over time.
Obama, evidently chastened by Netanyahu's sharp language in their televised encounter, refrained in his AIPAC address from reiterating his insistence on pre-1967 borders as the basis for negotiations. He also had nothing to say about the inflammatory issues of Palestinian refugees or the status of Jerusalem. He seems not to comprehend that the turmoil of the Arab Spring, everywhere local, has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
More than any of his Israeli predecessors Netanyahu clearly is at home in the United States, where he has deep family and personal roots. In his peroration, he became effusive in his praise for "the decisive role of the United States in advancing peace and defending freedom." Indeed, he concluded, "Providence entrusted the United States to be the guardian of liberty."
But it is the domestic Israeli implications of Netanyahu's Washington speech (and his Knesset speech the week before) that may be the most problematic. "It is not easy for me," he told Congress, "to give up parts of the Jewish homeland, . . . the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel," which has sustained "the four thousand year old bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land." But he would do it, which could mean that Israel -- and the Israel Defense Forces -- will confront the prospect of evicting as many as 120,000 Jewish settlers.
It would be tragic, warned National Union party chairman Ya'akov Katz, for any prime minister to draw up a list of "who will be expelled and who will not" from the Land of Israel. It will be a national trauma if Israeli soldiers are commanded to evict settlers from their biblical homeland. Any forcible evacuation is likely to provoke a violent, perhaps irreparable, rupture between religious and secular Zionists with fateful consequences for the nation.
The ten days that framed Netanyahu's speeches were illuminating. Obama demonstrated his continuing willingness to jeopardize relations with Israel, America's only reliable Middle Eastern ally, to curry Arab-Muslim favor. Abbas, now openly consorting with Hamas, effectively marginalized the Palestinian Authority.
Netanyahu, castigated for different reasons by critics on the left and right, stood firm on (most) crucial issues. But he also revealed his willingness to relinquish principles -- and land -- that once were bedrock for him and for the political party he leads. Whether that represents statesmanship or surrender remains to be seen.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena, just published by Quid Pro Books.