Netanyahu Lays Down His Markers

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his long-awaited foreign policy address, laid down clear markers to President Obama, Palestinians, the Arab world, the mullahs in Tehran, and to Israelis at home about how he intends to proceed with the peace process.

So let's take a quick, preliminary look at how Bibi defined his agenda vis a vis these diverse audiences:

TO PRESIDENT OBAMA--Netanyahu expressed full agreement with Obama about the need to resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians "immediately."  He also moved a few notches toward the president by declaring his readiness to accept Palestinian statehood -- "In our vision we see two states side by side, each with its own flag and anthem" -- albeit that Bibi's vision includes a demilitarized Palestine, forbidden from entering into treaties with Israel's enemies and willing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

That said, Netanyahu also took sharp issue with Obama on several fronts, starting with his rejection of the president's view that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are the key obstacle to forging a regional peace.  "Whoever thinks that the enmity to Israel is the result of our occupying Judea and Samaria is confusing cause and effect," Netanyahu declared  "The root of the conflict is the refusal to accept the Jewish people's right to exist in its historic homeland."  To drive home this point, Netanyahu cited Arab attacks against Israel before 1967 when Arabs controlled the West Bank and Gaza, and, more recently, the first and second intifadas and the counter-productive Israeli evacuations of all settlements from Gaza -- "Every retreat by us was met with thousands of suicide bombings and rockets."

In a direct rejection of Obama's demand that Israel halt home construction inside existing settlements before a final-status deal, Netanyahu declared:  Israeli "fathers and mothers in Judea and Samaria must have the possibility to let their children live beside them."  But he also made it clear that in other respects, Israel has no quarrel with Obama in putting the brakes on settlement expansion or growth -- "We do not intend to build new communities or expropriate land" in the West Bank.

Most tellingly, Netanyahu drew a sharp contrast between Obama's view of the right of Israel to its own homeland and his own view of Israel's ancient, historic right to sovereignty in the Holy Land.  In his Cairo speech, Obama described the creation of Israel as an outgrowth of the Holocaust -- "The aspiration for a Jewish  homeland is rooted in tragic history that cannot be denied.  Around the world, the Jews were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust."  Not so, said Netanyahu, Israel is not a post-Holocaust implant into the Middle East (the kind of view also espoused by Ahmadinejad)  -- "Judea and Samaria are not a foreign country for us," said Bibi.  "This is the land of our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The right of the Jewish people over our country does not come from the suffering we have been through.  Some say that if it weren't for the Holocaust there would be no State of Israel.  But I say that if Israel had been established in time there would not have been a Holocaust."

In all, a significant divergence between Netanyahu and Obama on what Israel is all about, its long-established historic rights, and the real causes of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

TO THE PALESTINIANS--Netanyahu circumscribed his acceptance of limited Palestinian statehood with firm rejection of Palestinian demands for a "right of return" for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants -- "The demand to settle Palestinian refugees inside Israel is incompatible with the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state'' -- and a similar rejection of Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem, including the Old City -- "Jerusalem will remain unified and with freedom for all religions."  Netanyahu also demanded that the Palestinian Authority, which now rules only over the West Bank, demilitarize Hamas, which remains in full control of Gaza  -- "Israel will not negotiate with terrorists who wish to annihilate us."

Netanyahu's vision and conditions for a two-state solution are not all that different from his predecessor's game plans.  The difference is more tactical than strategic.  Prior Israeli governments didn't telegraph in advance how they envisaged a final peace agreement, leaving the public-relations battlefield to the Palestinians, who had no such qualms about airing their objectives.  Now, Israel for the first time has put down clear, detailed markers of what it expects from a peace agreement.  In previous times, peace negotiations resembled political theater -- a futile exercise for both sides.  This time, if Obama is able to get the Palestinians to the negotiating table, both sides will have their cards up on the table.  That also may prove useless, but at least it should provide some honest transparency of what each side is willing to concede and what it will not concede.

TO THE ARAB WORLD--"Arabs must choose between the way of peace and the way of Hamas," Netanyahu declared, as he called on Arab leaders to end decades of rejectionism and recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

TO IRAN, where President Ahmadinejad has just won a disputed election victory, Netanyahu underscored that the threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of a regime sworn to Israel's destruction remains Israel's top security priority and should be acknowledged as the gravest danger to the international community -- "The biggest threat to Israel and the Middle East and all of humanity is the meeting between radical Islamism and nuclear weaponry."  While much of the media coverage will focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it would be very unwise to overlook this part of Bibi's speech.

TO HIS HOME AUDIENCE--With his speech, Netanyahu sought to align himself with the new center of political gravity in Israel, shaped by the ascendancy of Hamas, the weakness and intransigence of the Palestinian Authority, and the futility of the land-for-peace formula, as so painfully made clear by the thousands of rockets fired from Gaza against Israeli civilians in recent years, along with residual terrorist threats from the West Bank.  Bibi's willingness to envisage even limited Palestinian statehood puts him at odds with those Israeli nationalists on the right who don't want to cede an inch of the West Bank as well as with many on the left who favor Palestinian statehood with few, if any, strings attached. 

Thus, no surprise that Netanyahu's speech will be met by naysayers on both sides of the political spectrum.  But its contents seem to accord pretty well with the views of members of his own coalition, which should strengthen his hold on power and give him more maneuvering room in tough dealings with Team Obama.

No surprise either that there will be plenty of disagreements among American Jews about Bibi's game plan for the peace process.
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