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Daoud Kuttab

Daoud Kuttab

Posted: June 14, 2009 03:57 PM

Netanyahu's Failed Attempt to Emulate Obama


Ever since his announcement that he was going to make a major address, the speech of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was billed as a copy of the Obama speech in Cairo. In fact Netanyahu has been touting himself for some time as the Israeli Obama. His election campaigners tried to copy all of the American president's style using the exact same website look and attempt to use the Internet to garner support. The speech was even given to a university audience and some Israeli media outlets were joking that Bibi was asking his wife if she remembered any Quranic verses that he can use in his speech.

But Netanyahu is no Obama and his speech had nothing of the depth, sincerity and empathy that the American president showed to the Arab and Muslim worlds in his Cairo speech. It seems more of a response to US demands than a genuine attempt to convince Palestinians that he is serious about peace.

Palestinian cartoonist Khalil Abu Arafeh captured Palestinian cynicism of the speech of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. With the likeness of the Israeli prime minister with many microphones in front of him saying: "and there is no sign in my speech...of a two state solution." In crowds comes the reaction: "he has said it."

The Israeli prime minister did in fact mention a Palestinian state but not before filling the airwaves with conditions and qualifiers. He refused to accept a settlement freeze, refused to deal with Jerusalem, rejected any return of a single Palestinian refugee as well as demanded that Palestinians must accept Israel as a Jewish state and then the Israelis will accept a demilitarized state. No mention of the state being independent, viable or with territorial contiguity, all of which were made by the previous US president and has been repeated by the current occupier of the White House. In fact that is exactly what the Palestinian state that anyone who really understands what the two state solution is all about.

A demilitarized Palestinian state is not totally unacceptable to Palestinians. The secretary of the PLO's executive committee Yaser Abed Rabo reminded viewers of Palestine TV just after the speech that Palestinians have welcomed foreign troops on Palestinian soil if it means the end of occupation.

Accepting Israel as a Jewish state is also not a major problem. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly said that we have no problems what Israel wants to call itself. A lead story on front page of Al Quds on the same day as the speech quoted a Jewish author questioning the importance of recognizing Israel as a "Jewish state." The author is quoted that it is much more comprehensive to recognize the state of Israel rather than focus on recognizing the Jewish state.

The issue of a Jewish settlements freeze in the Palestinian territories that are to become the Palestinian state was not accepted by the Israeli leader. While he did declare no new settlements and no new expropriation of Palestinian lands (that doesn't include state land in Palestinian areas), the Israeli prime minister refused to accept Obama's and the international community's demands, as stated in the road map that all settlement activities including "natural growth" be frozen. Without such a freeze, the Palestinian Authority has said that they are unwilling to restart direct negotiations.

Netanayahu's speech also had a few more wasted words. The idea that he is willing to meet any Arab leader is clearly an attempt to take the Arab peace plan out of its content. The plan calls for total Arab normalization with Israel if it withdraws to its pre-'67 borders and accepts a fair and agreed-upon (meaning Israel will have a veto) solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. By trying to get to normalization without making any commitments on withdrawal Netanyahu wanted to make some PR points without paying the needed political price, namely land for peace.

All is not lost, however. The acceptance of the leader of the hardline Likud Party of Palestinian statehood, no matter how conditional, is an important move. It brings one more mainstream Israeli party to accepting that the former Zionist dream of Greater Israel is finally at a close. It will also be welcomed in Jordan who has been worried of late that the idea of the revival of the possibilities that Israelis restart their push for a Palestinian state in Jordan.