One way to evaluate PM Netanyahu’s much-anticipated speech at Bar-Ilan University this past Sunday night is to conclude wistfully that it didn’t take long for him to cave. Running on a platform of no concessions to the Palestinians, and implicitly rejecting a future Palestinian state (even, at times, explicitly), at the first hint of pressure Netanyahu sacrificed bargaining power, the credibility of Israel’s right-wing political parties, and good judgment by succumbing to American pressure moments after the first nudge was felt.
Surely we can expect more from our putative leaders – or perhaps not. After all, the operative principle of Israeli politics for the last thirty years has been “Labor proposes and Likud disposes.” It was Likud that surrendered Sinai, dismantled settlements there and recognized the “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people,” and Likud that expelled Jews from Gaza and North Shomron – all over the vociferous objections of its ideological stalwarts, who are disappointed time and again.
Netanyahu’s de facto acceptance of even a “demilitarized” Palestinian state, from that perspective, moves the goalposts of Israeli politics even further away from where mainstream opinion was even fifteen years ago, leaving Israel without a major political party that asserts that the Jewish people have exclusive rights and claims to the land of Israel provided to us by G-d in the Torah (a point also ignored by Netanyahu in his otherwise excellent historical narrative). And, of course, anyone who believes that a Palestinian state, should it ever (never) come into being, would ever be demilitarized should seek immediate professional help, and then read a little history.
Germany was to be completely and permanently demilitarized under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. And it was – until Hitler came to power, perceived that clause as demeaning to Germans, and swiftly and publicly proceeded to militarize Germany, until the quantity of its weaponry – in a very short time – exceeded that of the other European nations. What was the response of Europe to this blatant violation of Versailles ? Nothing at all, and the results are well known.
The Oslo Agreements, as well, promised a demilitarized Palestinian entity – with several thousand police officers who could bear only pistols, just for law enforcement purposes. Within several months, an army of 25,000 Arabs armed with machine guns and advanced weapons had been formed, and soon 1500 Jewish lives were lost. In fact, the Hebron Agreement that Netanyahu signed on his first go-round as prime minister permitted only pistols to the Hebron police force. But they were so jubilant at Israel’s withdrawal from Hebron that they immediately began firing their machine guns in the air. So much for agreements.
And does anyone actually believe that when the Palestinians breach such an agreement, and begin militarizing and attacking, that the world will have the slightest sympathy for Israel’s plight, or that Israel will have the fortitude to defend itself ? Words on paper never matter, and the most recent example is telling: Israel’s surrender of Gaza was accompanied by Sharon’s stern warnings that any rockets from Gaza would be met immediately with overwhelming force. Otherwise astute columnists like Charles Krauthammer averred that if Israel were attacked from Gaza after leaving Gaza, they would have the unassailable right to bomb Gaza to smithereens, “thirty Israeli rockets for every Palestinian rocket fired.” Of course, that did not happen, and thousands of rockets and ruined lives later, even Israel’s reluctant and brief invasion of Gaza was met with international condemnation and cries of “disproportionate use of force, killing of civilians,” etc., eventually forcing a withdrawal and a gradual return of the rockets falling on Israeli’s heads. Now why would one think the same thing would not happen here, only worse because these attacks from the “demilitarized” Palestinian state would aim at Israel’s heartland – its major cities and international airport ? Of course it makes no sense, anymore than we can expect the Palestinians to adhere to their tenth written promise to stop all anti-Jewish incitement in their media and schools.
So here’s another approach to Netanyahu’s speech – a brighter spin, if you will – that renders it a brilliant piece of political theater. This address had only two audiences: the domestic Israeli scene, and Barack Obama. One audience it did not address was the Arab world, despite the mandatory rhetorical nods to that population of incessant Jew-haters. Netanyahu might have correctly assumed that the Arabs will never agree even to negotiate over a “demilitarized” state at all, much less accept one; indeed, his speech and proposals were already rejected by Arab spokesmen as non-starters. Therefore, the ball is thrown into their court, in a way in which public opinion – in the short-term, and only in the short term – can accept, to wit: “If the Palestinians want a state, and Israel wants security, then the Palestinians can have a state and give Israel security by renouncing an army,” which in any event is superfluous. And Netanyahu studiously avoided the trap that he and all his predecessors have fallen into – making tangible concessions (prisoner releases, checkpoint removals, provision of money to the terrorist government, and surrenders of land) as “goodwill” gestures. That does not mean he won’t eventually do it, only that he did not append those to this speech.
As a result the domestic Israeli audience, desperate always to nurture the illusion that peace is at hand and to avoid an open rupture in the US-Israel alliance, overwhelmingly supported Netanyahu’s approach in the address (71% in the Haaretz poll) – even though 55% felt that he merely succumbed to American pressure. In that sense, he was able to stabilize his domestic standing merely by saying a word – “state” – and that is politically shrewd.
But his main audience was Obama, and in that regard he succeeded, and on Obama’s turf. After all, why did Netanyahu have to speak at all ? Why didn’t he just continue his negotiations and policy implementation through normal diplomatic channels ? After all, no Arab leader felt compelled to address the world after Obama’s Cairo speech, so why did Netanyahu run to Bar-Ilan ?
The answer is that Netanyahu realized that Obama is, literally, all talk. Obama thinks words are deeds, or at least matter more than deeds (hence, his verbal thrusts at Iran or North Korea, which he confuses for real policies). If talk is the coin of the realm, then talk, offer words – and nothing else. Even be so magnanimous – “moderate” – as to say the word “state.” Indeed, the media so obsessed on the question of whether or not Netanyahu would say “state” that had he spoken of the “Palestinian state of mind” or the “Palestinian state of the art weaponry”, the media have exulted in the juxtaposition of the words “Palestinian” and “state,” and that would have sufficed. In the chess match of dueling rhetoric, Netanyahu checked Obama – and when Obama speaks again in another forum on these same issues, as he assuredly will, Netanyahu should speak again – maybe in the United States, and match him speech for speech, cliché for cliché.
That is why I am supportive of Netanyahu and his approach.
The only downside is that words eventually catch up to the wordsmith, and eventually Israel will be held accountable. Once accepting a “state,” then the details of that state become subject to negotiation – unless Israel develops a backbone and stands firm against Obama, saying “no” to him as has every single country that he has asked for a favor in the last five months (the G-8 and the Arab world, not mention the rogue states). Israel can say “no” as well – as it is doing on the “natural growth in settlements” issue – and the world as we know it will not end.
And even in that instance, the notion that Israel has, to an extent, repudiated – again – the Zionist vision, and scorned the divine gift of the land of Israel, is unsettling, even if the existence of such a “state” has attached conditions that make its realization extremely unlikely. It is analogous to a Rabbi permitting a Jew to eat a ham sandwich, but only if the ham sandwich is located in a vault to which only one person has the key, and that person is unavailable. Principles do matter.
It is not the speech I would have given, but I am not the Prime Minister of Israel. For a prime minister of Israel – especially compared to his predecessors – it was clever, ingenious, and even devious – matching Obama’s rhetoric with his own.
As always, though, Netanyahu – like the rest of us – will be judged in the future by deeds and not only his words. We should maintain our principles, and support him from his right flank and not at his side, challenging him and strengthening him as is warranted by events.