If you are a foreign policy analyst, newspaper editor, pundit or just political junkie like myself, the last few days have been a real treat. From 19 May to 24 May, two world leaders – one the leader of the world’s only superpower and the other the leader of the world’s most historic people – made speeches, held press conferences and addressed some of the most influential and powerful political bodies in the world. There is a school of thought that says history is best understood by examining its records: treaties, laws and speeches. Whether one accepts this belief or not, the speeches made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been a model of historical consistency.
It began on 19 May. President Obama made a major foreign policy address at the US State Department (see https://themiddleeasthotspot.wordpress.com/2011/05/20/cairo-ad-nauseum/). He stated, in short, that the 1967 borders of Israel should be the future borders of a Palestinian state. This has long been a demand of the Palestinian Authority and its predecessor, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). To be fair, ever since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 it has been tacitly acknowledged that a Palestinian state would exist somewhere inside those borders. However, President Obama’s remarks crossed a line that no previous American president had: he publicly endorsed a key demand of the Palestinian Authority – and just days before the Israeli Prime Minister was due to arrive in the US.
Netanyahu’s office released a reply the same day, and battle lines were drawn. The Prime Minister’s response foreshadowed the themes that would be repeated and expanded upon in three more speeches over the coming days. First, any future Palestinian state would not come about at the expense of Israel’s security: Israel would not withdraw to the 1967 borders. Second, major Israeli population centers beyond the 1967 lines would be incorporated into Israel’s final borders. Third, that the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem would be within Palestinian borders, not Israel’s. There would be no “right of return.”
The Prime Minister also showed some of his card-playing skills in the press release of 19 May. It mentioned commitments made by a previous US president in 2004 and alluded to the overwhelming support of both US Houses of Congress. If President Obama reneges on the commitments of former President George W. Bush, what credibility does President Obama or any future American president have? Moreover, while he may be the leader of the world’s only superpower, President Obama still must contend with a US House of Representatives and US Senate that are in the hands of his Republican opposition.
Two days later, these same men sat together for several hours and discussed the status of American-Israeli relations, the stalled peace talks, and wider developments in the region. At their joint press conference afterwards, the Prime Minister returned to and expanded on the themes his office annunciated just two days earlier. “Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace,” but would not accept the indefensible 1967 borders. He stated quite clearly that Israel’s pre-1967 geography precluded any possibility of this. In addition, he stated very forcefully, “we’re going to have to have a long-term military presence along the Jordan.” He didn’t say “we would like to have” or “it would be a good idea,” but decisively, we are going to have it.
Perhaps to allay concerns that a major rift was growing between the two allies, Prime Minister Netanyahu acknowledged the President’s statement regarding Hamas. Scorning it as “the Palestinian version of al-Qaeda” (see https://themiddleeasthotspot.wordpress.com/2011/05/22/pity-poor-president-obama/) he indicated that Israel could not be asked to negotiate with a terrorist organization. Only weeks before, Hamas terrorists had killed a teenage boy with a deliberate rocket attack on a school bus and then condemned America for the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Finally, echoing his statement of 19 May, the Prime Minister said, “the Palestinian refugee problem will have to be resolved in the context of a Palestinian state” not within Israel’s borders. He also raised, perhaps for the first time by an Israeli prime minister, the issue of Jewish refugees. It is little known outside of Israel, but in the period from 1948-1952 Israel absorbed over 900,000 Jewish refugees from Arab states. People who had been stripped of almost all of their possessions and subjected to dictates reminiscent of the recently defeated Nazi Germany.
On 24 May, the Prime Minister forcefully repeated Israel’s position in front of a partisan audience at the America Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference. He evoked the shared commitment to democracy and liberty, reminding those assembled that the ideas of all mean being “created in God’s image, that no ruler is above the law, that everyone is entitled to justice” originated in biblical Israel. These ideas are finally coming to the Arab world, he said, noting the unrest that has rocked the region and toppled two Arab autocrats. Pointing out that the region’s problems are not rooted in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in the lack of freedom in the Arab world, he proclaimed, “Israel is what is right about the Middle East.”
Finally on the same day, Benjamin Netanyahu had the rare privilege, although it was the second time he has enjoyed such an honor, of addressing a joint-session of the US Congress. Immediately, he played his “Congress card” saying, “And I do see a lot of old friends here. And I do see a lot of new friends here. Democrats and Republicans alike.” The message was clear: my support in your Congress, unlike yours, President Obama, is deep and bipartisan. Applause interrupted the Israeli Prime Minister’s speech more than they had interrupted the President’s State of the Union address four months earlier. Later on in his speech, he would thank President Obama for leading the international effort to impose sanctions on Iran, and pointedly thanked Congress for passing “even tougher sanctions.”
Once again, he noted the region’s turbulence, the “epic battle” unfolding “between tyranny and freedom” and reminded America’s congressional representatives that the outcome of this battle is never certain. Indeed, twice it was lost in the region: in Iran in 1979 and Lebanon in 2010. He made a point that, “Of the 300 million Arabs” in the region, only the one million in Israel “enjoy real democratic rights.” He could have easily added that if there was freedom of press in the Arab world, his words would ring true in every home from Sudan to Syria, from Algeria to Oman.
Again, he clearly stated Israel’s policies: ‘yes’ to a Palestinian state, ‘no’ to the 1967 borders. Israel will incorporate major settlement blocs into its final borders, including Jerusalem. The Palestinian refugee problem will be solved within the context of a Palestinian state, not within the borders of Israel. Finally, that the Palestinian state that emerges will be demilitarized, and that Israel will maintain a long-term military presence in the strategic Jordan River valley.