A very wise Republican friend of mine, star pollster Frank Luntz, has made it a science to convince politicians of the supposedly self-evident proposition that words count.
New Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu is known in Israel and throughout the world as a man of the right. He is often referred to as a "hard-liner" when it comes to dealing with the Palestinians. The early impression in American and European media has been that Mr. Netanyahu, as one Jerusalem-based think tank fellow put it, "has refused to commit himself to a two-state solution."
This is because whenever Mr. Netanyahu is asked whether he favors a two-state solution, his answer often sounds like, simply put, "No, but." But he could articulate exactly the same substantive position by saying, "Yes, but."
Words matter, as Mr. Luntz always reminds us. And which of these two words Mr. Netanyahu chooses matters. A lot.
Let's look at substance first.
The "but" word, whether it comes after a "no" or "yes," actually understandably involves the same four preconditions to a two-state solution: An extended period of peace and a civil society by the Palestinian entity; freedom of the skies; demilitarization; and a ban on hostile alliances.
To understand the reasons for each of them, let's substitute the name America for Israel, and Mexico for Palestine.
Would America agree to recognize Mexico as a sovereign state if Mexico were publicly committed to the destruction of the United States, with moonlighting military forces or terrorists free to use Mexico as a base for invading America or shooting rockets at American cities?
Would America agree if Mexico had control over its border crossings that were regularly used to permit al Qaeda or other international terrorists to enter and operate in its territory and attack the U.S. and invade Texas?
What if Mexico could shoot down planes flying from San Diego to Miami if they came too close to Mexican airspace?
And what if Mexico could make an alliance with al Qaeda or other anti-U.S. terrorists like Hezbollah and perhaps even cooperate in the planning of another 9/11-style attack on our economy and civilians?
Would Americans accept any of those scenarios? Of course not. So too for Israel.
Most Americans and even most Europeans, where criticism towards Israel has recently been greater after the Gaza incursion, understand that no nation could permit the establishment of a state next to it whose central policy is to bring about its destruction. That is why no two-state solution involving a Hamas-governed Gaza is possible. Here is a direct quote from Hamas' charter:
The Prophet, Allah's prayer and peace be upon him, says: 'The Hour of judgment shall not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them, so that the Jews hide behind trees and stones, and each tree and stone will say: 'Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.'"
So long as Hamas remains in power in Gaza, and committed to terrorism and the destruction of Israel, there can be no peace with Hamas.
But as to the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority, Mr. Netanyahu has a great historic opportunity to accomplish what his more "dovish" predecessor, the Kadima Party government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and now leader Tzipi Livni, have tried but were unable to achieve.
Mr. Netanyahu has already made it clear that his priority will be to assist the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank (as opposed to the Hamas-led junta in Gaza) to achieve economic growth, prosperity, jobs, education, and housing for the Palestinian people.
As Yossi Klein Halevi, a leading Jerusalem strategic think tank fellow, recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Obama will find a ready partner in Jerusalem [under a Netanyahu government] for improving economic conditions in the West Bank. That process would present the Palestinians with a stark choice between their two territories: the beginnings of prosperity in a peaceful West Bank, or devastation in a jihadist Gaza."
Actually, Mr. Netanyahu set forth similar ideas in a Chicago Tribune article last December, entitled "Don't Give Up On Peace," which reads as if it could have been written by former British Prime Minister (and special envoy) Tony Blair.
Just as the arch-anticommunist Richard Nixon could afford politically to break barriers and go to Communist China without worrying about accusations of being "soft on Communism," so too would Mr. Netanyahu's credibility and base on the security-conscious Israeli right give him greater flexibility to commit to a two-state solution with the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank -- but only after an evolutionary period that fulfilled the four caveats discussed above, assuring Israelis of security for their country and their children for years to come.
By choosing to answer the two-state solution question, "Yes, but," Mr. Netanyahu can win additional support from U.S. liberals, women and blacks, who recent polls show were most dismayed by the Gaza intervention. By answering "No, but," Mr. Netanyahu also risks appearing to disagree not only with President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and special envoy George Mitchell, but also with the last two U.S. presidents, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton.
Mr. Netanyahu should be confident enough of his conservative security credentials to become the Nixon-to-China historic leader of Israel. He would be following in the footsteps of other conservative Israeli leaders: Menachem Begin, a former Irgun leader who as prime minister made a 1978 peace with Egypt that lasts through today; Ariel Sharon, considered the father of the settlement movement but who as prime minister embraced the two-state solution and forcibly dismantled settlements in both the West Bank and Gaza; and the late Yitzhak Rabin, himself a warrior turned peacemaker.
Mr. Netanyahu might even have the unique ability to reach out boldly (but quietly) to Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt that we know share his conviction that Iran must not be permitted to develop a nuclear weapon.
Thus, it can be Mr. Netanyahu's historic legacy to achieve what could accurately be described as the ultimate feat of modern diplomatic history: to bring peace between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East, people who share the same ancient Semitic heritage, and, according to the Torah and Koran, share the same great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great, etc., grand-father, Abraham.
If he does that, then Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu can be assured of God's ultimate blessing -- for "blessed be the peacemakers -- they shall inherit the earth."
Lanny J. Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton, served as a member of President Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is the author of "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America."