Why Netanyahu Got it All Wrong
In a speech before a joint session of the Congress of the United States last Tuesday that eerily paralleled President Obama’s barely five days earlier at the State Department, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, outlined an assessment of the current situation in the Middle East and a vision for the future of the region with assumptions that are both bewildering and dubious.
Coming so closely on the heels of Obama’s speech, it is difficult to ignore the obvious points of departure; differences that, given the standing claims of an enduring unity of resolve or shared sense of purpose by both countries, could hardly be ignored or elegantly rationalized.
It is my fundamental contention that the views that Netanyahu articulated to rousing, repeated applause by American lawmakers, approximate the same kind of absolutist, purist, zero-sum posturing that, interestingly, while pandering to traditional pro-Jewish power centers in Israel and interest groups here in the US cause the goal of peace to remain frustratingly unreachable.
Such was the case during the Camp David Summit in 2000 when then PLO Leader Yassser Arafat walked away from a peace deal with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, brokered by President Clinton, that many till date believed had the greatest promise for bringing the long-cherished two-state solution to fruition.
Back then, regarding the re-allocation of territories, while Arafat insisted on full Palestinian sovereignty over the entire West Bank and the Gaza Strip but with the possibility of a one-to-one land swap with Israel, Barak agreed to allow the Palestinian State to be formed out of 73% of the West Bank and 100% of the Gaza Strip while, in 10-25 years, allowing for an expansion to 90-91% of the West Bank.
And on the status of Jerusalem, in a move that would have resulted in the dismantling of all existing Israeli neighborhoods in the area at the time, the Palestinians demanded full control of East Jerusalem, including its twin holy sites (the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque). Israel countered with a proposal granting Palestinians "custodianship," but not sovereignty, of the Temple Mount while the Israeli government would in return retain control of one of its most precious religious sites, the Western Wall. Additionally, Barak’s Israeli negotiators traded administrative oversight over the Muslim and Christian Quarters of the Old City to the Palestinians for continuing Israeli management of the Jewish and Armenian Quarters.
Regrettably, like Arafat before him more than ten years ago at Camp David, Netanyahu currently appears to be misreading the region's political landscape and dangerously over-playing his hands.
Acknowledging that the “Middle East stands at a fateful crossroads,” declaring that rather than being “what is wrong with the Middle East,” “Israel is what is right about the Middle East” and figuratively pounding his chest and speaking gloatingly about Israel representing the paragon of modernity, democracy and peace is foolish demagoguery.
It is simply deceitful of Netanyahu to declare that he recognizes “that a Palestinian state must be big enough to be viable, to be independent, to be prosperous” while summarily rejecting Obama’s two-state proposal based upon the pre-1967 territorial map of the region as “indefensible” and continuing Israeli expansionist intentions as reflected in the unceasing commissioning of the construction new Jewish settlements on the disputed territories upon which such a state would rise.
Insisting on an undivided Jerusalem that “must remain the united capital of Israel” as an incontestable political fact and requiring continuing Israeli presence in parts of Gaza as the only viable guarantee for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is nothing short of disingenuous.
On the refugee issue, Netanyahu absolved Israel of all responsibilities. He basically called it a “Palestinian problem” that must be “resolved outside the borders of Israel.” In his view, “Palestinians from around the world,” not just Israel, “should have a right to immigrate, if they so choose, to a Palestinian state” once realized.
The Prime Minister also went to great lengths about the Palestinian failure or refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist. This, obviously, flies in the face of historical reality. Not only did the Palestinian authorities actually do this under Arafat, President Mahmoud Abbas has re-affirmed it on numerous occasions.
What really irks Netanyahu is the budding unity government between Abbas’ Fatah and Hamas; which explains why he passionately chided President Abbas to “tear up your pact with Hamas, sit down and negotiate, make peace with the Jewish state.”
But this, again, is totally misleading and misplaced. Granted that, as an organization, Hamas remains sworn to the destruction or annihilation of Israel, Netanyahu is the least qualified to prescribe how Palestinians should govern themselves or with which organizations Abbas’ Fatah should form a coalition government. The state of Israel itself is notorious for forming fractious governments based on alliances between multiple political parties including those principally committed to manifestos that are not welcoming to Palestinian aspirations for statehood.
One thing I do agree with Netanyahu about, however, is that “Israel needs unique security arrangements because of its unique size” and, might I add, geo-historical circumstances. Any construct or proposal for peace that fails to robustly account for this should be suspect.
I am fully aware that Netanyahu and many of his ardent supporters might take issue with the thrust of my condemnation of the Israeli Prime Minister’s positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by positing the all-too-familiar defense that he’s simply representing the will of the Jewish state of Israel. To which I would retort that inspiring, visionary leadership lies not in hiding behind the “wishes of the people” that often are as nebulous and shapeless as the wind and merely decipherable from such ephemeral, fleeting mechanisms like polls and periodic elections but in guiding the citizenry to a place of understanding that is rooted in reason and pragmatism.
True, enduring peace in the Middle East, one that is both achievable and sustainable, can only result from negotiating platforms that are honest, empathic, fair-minded and realistic.
Netanyahu and many like-minded Israelis must rethink the foregoing positions, seize the promise of now to re-start stalled talks, and broker peace with the Palestinians. Time is really not on their side. Not only is the demographic reality within Israel itself changing in ways that are disadvantageous to Jews, as the recent re-opening of the Rafah border crossing into Gaza by the newly constituted Egyptian government clearly demonstrates, gone are the days when Tel Aviv and Washington could count on tyrants like Mubarak to serve as bulwarks against the e-emergence of a more virulent anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian fervor.