Bibi's Baby Step: What Next After Netanyahu's Speech?

06/15/2009 10:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Daniel Levy and Amjad Atallah

"One giant leap for Benjamin Netanyahu, but just one small step for Middle East peace."
That was how commentators in both of Israel's leading dailies, Yehidot Ahronot and Ma'ariv, chose to describe the Prime Minister's address yesterday. One thing can definitely be concluded from the speech, Ben Rhodes has not been on loan from the White House and stationed in Jerusalem for the last week. It was a poor speech stylistically. Even the historical and biblical quotes were of the predictable and plodding kind, it lacked grandeur or any sense of occasion. More importantly, it was also a mean-spirited, often petty and parochial speech in its substance, "a speech without a gram of nobility," as commentator Ofer Shelach wrote in Ma'ariv.

Israel has just lived through two prime ministers who made significant journeys from their right-wing roots and even if neither entered the promised land of peace, both made gestures in that direction. Ariel Sharon acknowledged the occupation as did his successor Ehud Olmert, who went much further in recognizing a Palestinian narrative and displaying some empathy to, for instance, the Palestinian refugees. Judging from the Bar-Ilan University speech, Benjamin Netanyahu has barely set out on that journey. For him, there was no occupation, talk of Judea and Samaria but no West Bank, and there was no sense of humanity in his approach to the Palestinians. Although they are his neighbors and even 20% of his own citizenry, their world would seem to be totally alien to him. He called, for instance, on the Arab world to develop together joint tourist sites, such as, "around the walls of Jericho and the walls of Jerusalem," with no apparent appreciation for the irony of referring to walls in this context.

Netanyahu, perhaps understandably, spoke to a lowest common denominator - Jewish Israeli consensus, and his right wing coalition was sleeping easy last night. And yet, he uttered those two magic words, Palestinian state. The list of conditionalities surrounding the establishment of that state may have been so extensive as to drain the very idea of statehood of any meaning but still, he said it.

The Obama administration had asked for two things: on a settlement freeze they received a blunt 'No'; on Palestinian statehood, it was a highly conditioned 'Yes, but...'. As Israel TV and Ma'ariv analyst Ben Caspit put it, "welcome Mr. Prime Minister to the 20th century. The problem is that we're already in the 21st."

So what happens next? What are the consequences of this speech and what can be done in its wake? Here are five suggestions, most of them for the Obama administration but a thought also on the Palestinian response.

First, as the White House Press Secretary immediately did, pocket that Palestinian statehood commitment. However minor it may seem, however wrapped in negatives, it is something to build on. It is also clearly something that cannot be left to the parties themselves to translate into a workable plan for actually realizing a two-state reality. That will be a job for the US and its international and regional allies.

Second, treat the Israeli Prime Minister's emphasis on security issues and conditionalities as an invitation. Once he got past the historical lecture, Benjamin Netanyahu actually laid out some reasonable concerns with regard to the security arrangements and guarantees that a peace agreement would have to address. Netanyahu spent three paragraphs outlining the demilitarization, monitoring, air-space requirements, and other security factors weighing on his mind, and Netanyahu made a direct plea, "today we ask our friends in the international community, led by the United States for what is critical to the security of Israel."

The Obama administration should respond and present a detailed plan for answering Israel's legitimate security concerns in the context of a two-state solution. There will of course be a parallel ask of Israel from its "friends in the international community led by the United States" - end the occupation, agree to a border based on the '67 lines with only minor reciprocal modifications, including arrangements for Jerusalem, and for the refugees, and for real Palestinian sovereignty.

Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday opened the door for this kind of an arrangement. He also notably did not mention the effort of American General Keith Dayton or the Palestinian Security Forces. The message is clear. Security will have to be an internationally-led effort and capacity-building in the Palestinian security sector should from now on be treated as something that is perhaps useful but of a secondary order of magnitude.

Third, the Obama administration and the Quartet must push back in response to Netanyahu's settlement freeze rejectionism. Netanyahu promised there would be no new settlements or additional land confiscations but there would be a normal life, which is referred to in the technical jargon as "natural growth". The settler leadership understood this ruse for what it is, and when Israel Channel One cut from the speech to settler leaders in Ma'aleh Adumim, they were celebrating. "We do not need new land or new settlements," said local mayor Benny Kasriel, former head of the settlers' council, "just to keep building." One can see his point. The West Bank settler population has increased from 111,000 to over 290,000 since the Oslo process began in 1993 (the number reaches almost 500,000 including East Jerusalem). The vast majority of that was under the rubric of natural growth, and there are vast expanses of land annexed to settlement municipalities awaiting construction.

The Obama administration needs to stick to its principle of a total freeze, whether in public or private conversation, and as former ambassador Daniel Kurtzer pointed out in Sunday's Washington Post, there are no previous understandings on this matter between Washington and Jerusalem (and supposed friends of Israel, like Elliott Abrams, are a danger to Israel and to the America-Israel relationship when they claim otherwise). There can be only one place for a discussion of the future of settlements and that is delineating a permanent status border between Israel and Palestine.

Fourth, Netanyahu's speech should provide a spur for Palestinian national reconciliation and unity (though we doubt this will be the case). The disappointed PA response, while understandable, was somewhat beside the point. The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza have heard an Israeli national narrative and position. Adhering to Palestinian divisions, and a strategy exclusively based on negotiations has even less logic or credibility as of yesterday. The Palestinians will need to find a way to sufficiently unify their own national narrative. Simultaneously they need to develop a common position on negotiations in parallel with a willingness to use nonviolent struggle in opposing the continued occupation (as President Obama hinted at in his Cairo speech).

Finally, the Obama administration should interpret both the venue of Netanyahu's speech (the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies) and his repeated reference to Begin-Sadat as a subliminal message. Benjamin Netanyahu is asking to go down in history as a historical leader of Israel just as Menachim Begin did, and this time by securing a comprehensive peace and final borders with all of Israel's neighbors, including the Palestinians (Menachem Begin settled for just Egypt). Begin never thought he would withdraw from all of the Sinai and evacuate the settlements there, but with American guidance, it happened and has vitally served Israel's interests.

After only one month of American complaint regarding settlements, Netanyahu has already said the magic words - Palestinian state. Now at the Begin-Sadat Center he was signaling that he wants to be carried further, all the way in fact, and his non-mention of the Golan Heights was another hint that it's a comprehensive peace he wants America to lead him to... well, maybe not. But we prefer this interpretation to all of the alternatives.