Netanyahu's Speech: One Step Forward, Four Steps Back

One Step Forward
Donning the same attire (black suit, white shirt, and blue tie) as President Obama wore during his speech in Cairo, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered on Sunday his first foreign policy speech. As he spoke from Bar Ilan University -- home of the country's right wing intellectuals -- he reached out to the Arab world. Mentioning the word peace 18 times, Netanyahu's introduction remarkably resembled Obama's speech to the Egyptians and the Muslim world. Netanyahu declared, in the opening of his speech, his willingness "to meet at any time, at any place, in Damascus, in Riyadh, in Beirut, and in Jerusalem as well" with the Arab leaders. Moreover, he echoed Obama's inaugural address which reached out to the Muslim world, seeking "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

Four Steps Back
After an introduction that accentuated Israel's desire for peace, it is a pity that Netanyahu chose to continue in a manner that does not offer the Palestinians a sincere partnership. In Netanyahu's analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only half truths were presented. First, presenting only the Palestinians' role in the "root of the conflict" as "the simple truth," Netanyahu engaged in a blame game. Starting from the 1920s, Netanyahu depicted how the Palestinians have been fighting continuously against Israel's independence. However, their hostility towards the Jews in Palestine, and later on in Israel, was not placed into a wider context. The other truth was absent from the speech -- that the Palestinians had lived in Palestine for hundreds of years and were surprised when the Jews began to disembark into the ports of Haifa and Jaffa proclaiming their long promised land. Moreover, Netanyahu cited the uprooting of a few thousand Israelis from settlements in the Gaza Strip, while hundreds of thousands dislocated Palestinians from 1948 were not mentioned. The only reference to the Palestinian refugees appeared later in his speech, handed off as a problem of the Palestinians and the Arab countries alone.

A bilateral reconciliation process which examines the "root of the conflict" can be constructive. Nevertheless, it is only useful if both narratives are acknowledged, and if it is agreed that there is more than one "simple truth." Otherwise, it would be more valuable to focus on the future prospects and incentives for sustainable peace, recognizing the fact that both sides to the conflict are responsible and have suffered tremendously from its consequences.

Second, throughout the whole speech, the double standard of Netanyahu's world view was readily apparent. He criticized Hamas and Hezbollah for proclaiming their commitment to "liberate the Israeli cities of Ashkelon, Beersheba, Acre and Haifa," while a large community in Israel -- widely supported by the current government -- proclaims their ancient rights to the West Bank settlements of Judea and Samaria. Moreover, as Netanyahu yearns for the Palestinian leaders to "recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own in this land," the Palestinians yearn for Israel to recognize their loss of land, towns, and citizenry. But instead, Netanyahu's government is in the process of outlawing the public observance of Nakba day -- the day on which the Palestinians commemorate this loss.

Third, while addressing Israel's key concerns, as is proper for a nation's leader, Netanyahu did not address issues of high importance to the Palestinians, as is proper for a visionary. There was no implication in the speech of willingness to freeze the expansion of the settlements -- an important symbol that the Israelis are willing to alter the status quo. Jerusalem, according to the speech, would remain as the uniquely Jewish capital and the Palestinian refugees would become the responsibility of the Arab world. Addressing the Palestinians with these conditions, and without real concessions, does not suggest that the Palestinians are an equal partner for negotiations, and most likely will deter them from further engaging in bilateral peace talks.

Fourth and last, Netanyahu ended his speech summarizing Israeli achievement in only sixty one years: "Our people have already proven that we can do the impossible. ... Our microchips power the world's computers. Our medicines are treating diseases once considered incurable. Israeli drip irrigation waters arid lands throughout the world. Israeli researchers are making worldwide breakthroughs." But in spite of all this achievement, Netanyahu defers the responsibility for peace to the Palestinians: "If our neighbors only work for peace, we can achieve peace." A better conclusion would be for Israel to take its own step forward, leveraging these soft power abilities, taking responsibility for its part in the past, and acknowledging its crucial role in shaping the future of the two nations.