Friday, July 3, 2009

Netanyahu's Words

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech the other night highlighted the main issues surrounding the conflict that we discussed during our week-and-a-half seminar period. It was his first major foreign policy speech in this term as prime minister and it represented his firm stance regarding many of the disputed issues. However, his words also showed fissures of compromise that might have been hard to catch pre-media coverage analysis. He claimed that Israel had no intention of continuing settlement construction, but also stated that "natural growth" will continue to be allowed. He also made it clear that he wanted Jerusalem to remain the united capital of Israel and placed major emphasis on the fact that any future Palestinian state must be demilitarized. That is, it cannot have a standing army that could pose a threat to Israel in the future.

His speech represented the main crux of the Israeli government's end-goal in dealing with the Palestinians, which is "peace and security." Israel wants peace as long as that peace brings with it a sustainable security situation that keeps Israelis safe from terrorism and violence. This is equivalent to "peace and quiet." The quiet represents a life free of the fear of attacks from a hostile neighbor. For the Palestinians, the general demand is "peace and justice," which ostensibly brings both peace and reparations, in some form, to those who have been displaced or who have suffered under Israeli occupation. The Palestinians want repayment from Israel for the alleged injustices they over the decades, such as the granting the right of return. These are common competing narratives between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The objective of security is reflected in Netanyahu's speech. Even with his demands, which appeared to be non-negotiable, it was the first time that Netanyahu had ever used the term "Palestinian state." Until that point, the concept of a Palestinian state was never considered publicly by Netanyahu. This change of heart is largely attributed to President Obama's recent pressure on Netanyahu to cease settlement building and engage in negotiations. A picture of President Obama recently emerged of him on the phone with Netanyahu apparently making his demands clear to the prime minister. Ethan Bronner told us that the White House press release he received described the conversation as "constructive," which apparently is code word for disagreement. Netanhayu's balancing act on Sunday shows signs of this pressure from Obama in terms of easing his tough stance against granting Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu is forced to take a hard-line stance in order to please the right-wing constituency that is largely responsible for this election to office, but to also take into consideration the demands of an American president who holds military aid over his head. In all fairness, no matter what Netanyahu did he stood to lose friends in some circles.

As a side note, much of the Israeli public seems to be very upset with Obama. The other day we drove by a sign that read, "Israel Will Not Bend" in clear reference to Israel's supposed determination to withstand America's calls for a change in policy regarding the Palestinians. I imagine it must be hard knowing that one country has significant influence over your country's policies. Israel wants to be autonomous just like any other country, and outside pressure can certainly make that feeling of self-determination threatened. Netanyahu is stuck between a rock and a hard place. You can't please everybody. After the speech, he was attacked both from the right for not taking a tougher stance and appearing weak under presssure from Obama, and took hits from the Palestinians for not making any concessions to the Palestinian cause. No one was pleased except for those who understood the fact that Netanyahu did bend in a big way. He spoke of a Palestinian state, even if its establishment had to meet several of Israel's stringent conditions.

Many see this as a major step forward for Netanyahu, who has previously dismissed the idea. America's influence in Israel is definitely real, even if Netanyahu is taking baby steps towards increased alignment with Obama's demands. I imagine there will be gradual moves to comprimse and conciliation both on Israel's and the Palestinians' side, irrespective of Netanyahu's public pledges. Hopefully, gaining politic points will happen on the surface while back-door talks could yield productive results beneifical to both sides. It remains to be seen whether this silver lining in Netanhayu's words is real and substantive, rather than a way to please Obama in the short term and stall the process in the long term.

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