Netanyahu accepts a Palestinian state (has some tiny conditions, though)

Posted: June 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

cross-posted with FPW.

You can say that Benjamin Netanyahu raised impossible demands from the Palestinians in his “major diplomatic speech,” as he called it (full text here). You can say that he didn’t accept the American demand for a complete stop of all construction projects in the West bank and East Jerusalem. You can say that he spent most of his time repeating his usual narrative of peace-seeking Israelis and Arab Rejectionism, and that he was “boldly stepping into 1993“. And you would probably be right in saying all this.

But what I heard today was the last Israeli leader to accept the idea of a Palestinian state.

There is no national figure to the right of Netanyahu, only second rate extremists. Avigdor Liberman long ago accepted the idea of a Palestinian state. So did, in less than a decade, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni – all of them formerly Likud people, even hard-liners, who finally understood that from an Israeli point of view, even a Zionist one, there is no real alternative. Twenty years ago, even Labor leaders didn’t speak of a Palestinian state. It was considered a radical-leftist idea. Things changed; one can’t deny that – but at what price!

So much for historical perspective. Now we can take apart some of the smaller details of the speech:

Negotiations: Netanyahu called for immediate negotiations with all Arab leaders, “without preconditions.” This in something Israeli leaders always said, and the Arabs will probably reject this idea again. The reason is simple: The only asset the Arab leaders are holding is the possibility of legitimizing Israel, and negotiations can be seen as a form of legitimation. That’s why most leaders will ask for something in return before engaging in direct talks – if not from Israel, than from the US.

A Jewish State: Netanyahu wasn’t completely honest when he claimed to be ready to negotiate without preconditions. He had some conditions, especially for the Palestinian side. First, he asked Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state (in fact, if I got it right, he kind of asked the whole Arab world to do so). This is something the Palestinians will never do, because they would be betraying the cause of Palestinians citizens of Israel – which make up 20 percent of the population – for equal political and civil rights. But Netanyahu knows that this demand sounds good to the Israeli public, as well as to American Jews (unlike his insistence on building settlements), so he keeps on raising the issue, assuming it can help him out of tough corners in the future.

Hamas: Netanyahu had another condition for the Palestinians. He demanded the PA does something the Israeli Army couldn’t do: remove Hamas from power and re-seize control over the Gaza strip. Again, Netanyahu probably knows that moderate Arab leaders, with the silent support of the Obama administration, are moving in the opposite direction, of establishing a Palestinian unity government that will be able to negotiate with Israel. The Hamas problem allows him to buy time.

In my view, this is currently the biggest obstacle in the way of the peace process. This is not about declaring something about a Jewish homeland, like the previous demand. We can always work out a fancy statement that will keep almost everyone happy. This is a real political mess: Hamas controls Gaza. The PLO controls the West Bank. Are we to establish three states? The position Netanyahu took actually gives veto power over any agreement to Hamas – and the PM might be counting on them to use it.

Settlements: Thirty words. That’s what Netanyahu had to say about the issue which stood at the bottom of his confrontation with Obama, as well as his political problems at home. Bottom line: the PM presented the consensus he was able to build in his government as a response to the American demand. No new settlements will be built, and there will be no further confiscation of Palestinian land (I won’t go into the legal details, but this doesn’t mean much, because Israel decided long ago most of the land in the WB is “public land”, and therefore open for construction). We will have to see what Israel really does on the ground – and how the Administration responds – in order to judge both sides’ commitment to their positions.

Borders, Security, Refugees and Jerusalem: we had nothing new here. A typical Israeli hard-line. Netanyahu even said at one point that “my positions on these matters are well known.” And that’s exactly how we should look at them – his positions, which will be subject to whatever happens at the negotiating table.

And that’s my bottom line: I never thought – and I still don’t think – that Benjamin Netanyahu is the right man to lead Israel out of the West Bank (not to mention bring peace for the region). Not because he is a radical – Sharon was considered much worse before he took power – but because he hasn’t got the right character, nor the right ambitions. But he can still play a big role in this process, and if he does, this day will be remembered as his first step. It took Obama only two months to get him there. We should be optimistic.

Everything is Personal: How Jerusalem Lost Contact with Washington

Posted: June 7th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: elections, In the News, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

cross-posted with FPW.

Is the Israeli government ready to come out of its shell and respond to President Obama’s Middle East plan?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced today at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting that he will present his answer to Obama’s speech in Cairo next week. The PM intends to hold his own “major diplomatic speech,” in which he will discuss “our principles for achieving peace and security.” According to Haaretz, the speech will probably be given in the Bar Ilan university near Tel Aviv, where Netanyahu will receive an honorary doctorate on June 16th.

In the past few weeks, Netanyahu has faced growing criticism– even from his supporters – for not preparing himself for the shift in the American administration’s policy. When Washington started sending signals – and later on, explicit demands – with regards to the settlements issue and the two-state solution, the Israeli government responded with panic. Instead of presenting his own vision of the future of the Middle East – even as some sort of lip service, just to get the Americans off his back – the PM made it seem like there is no partner in Jerusalem.

It is clear today that the new Israeli government has failed to appreciate the magnitude of the changes happening in Washington. Part of the reason is poor timing: the Obama team has been preparing a new policy since November. Netanyahu had just a month in office before he met the new president. One could guess that the fact that the first person to leave office after the Israeli elections was the Israeli ambassador in Washington didn’t do much good either.

Read the rest of this entry »

Obama’s Speech: the Israeli Perspective

Posted: June 5th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The people behind the excellent Foreign Policy Watch blog invited me to write for them during this summer. I will cross-post most of the stuff here. Here are some thoughts I wrote for FPW yesterday, following Barak Obama’s speech in Cairo.

President Obama touched a variety of subjects on his long-awaited speech to the Arab world today, starting from cultural differences, through religion and finally geopolitics. He mentioned countries and events all across the region, and made many historical and political analogies which could be analyzed and debated. I am not an expert on the Arab world, so I will focus on the two major issues that concerned the Israelis listening to the speech – and they were listening, believe me – which are Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

TO AN ISRAELI EAR, what was interesting in Obama’s speech was that on the surface, the American president didn’t really say anything new. He didn’t need to – the location, as well as the events leading to the speech, made all the difference.

Before we get to hardcore politics, what was most striking and impressive, was the effort Obama took in explaining the special relationship between the US and Israel, and especially his clear words against Holocaust denial, which is becoming somewhat of a phenomenon in several Arab countries. Some people didn’t like the fact that Obama went straight from there to the Palestinian tragedy, but most Israelis I talked to were incredibly impressed by the president’s insistence to speak so firmly on the matter in this particular speech, and in that particular place.

Read the rest of this entry »

Israel’s stronghold in Washington

Posted: June 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Politico’s Ben Smith has an interesting story on what seems to be a growing concern amongst the House Democrats due to Obama’s pressure on Israel.

… even a key defender of Obama’s Mideast policy, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), is seeking to narrow the administration’s definition of “settlement” to take pressure off Obama. And the unusual criticism by congressional Democrats of the popular president is a sign that it may take more than a transformative presidential election to change the domestic politics of Israel.

This was kind of expected. The House was always Israel’s stronghold in Washington. After it decided in the 90′s to move the American embassy to Jerusalem – against the will of the WH, and even the Israeli government! – pundits used to joke that the House is more Zionist than the Knesset (all foreign embassies in Israel sit in Tel Aviv, because Jerusalem’s international statues was never resolved).

One should also note that two of the Representatives criticizing the president in the Politico article come from New York, what probably makes them super-sensitive to the concern of the Jewish community there.

The bottom line is that unlike on economic issues, the House is not that central in shaping foreign policy. And the American embassy, I should note, is still in Tel Aviv.

Panic in Jerusalem: Obama is the new Pharaoh

Posted: May 31st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

The concern in Jerusalem after the Obama-Netanyahu meeting has turned into panic, once it was made clear that the administration wants Israel to really stop building in the settlements. Haaretz reports:

We’re disappointed,” said one senior (Israeli) official. “All of the understandings reached during the [George W.] Bush administration are worth nothing.” Another official said the U.S. administration is refusing every Israeli attempt to reach new agreements on settlement construction. “The United States is taking a line of granting concessions to the Palestinians that is not fair toward Israel,” he said.

Read the rest of this entry »

Timing is everything – Netanyahu returns from Washington

Posted: May 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Here are my two cents on the Obama-Netanyahu meeting:

- There were no gestures made after the meeting: Obama showed concern on the issue of Iran, but made no specific obligations. Netanyhu didn’t try to please his hosts – as some imagined he would – with talks about concessions. It mights suggest that there were no gestures inside the meeting as well, or that both sides estimated that it was in their best interest to keep these matters under the table.

- There were also no reports of personal gestures, small-talk or anecdotes – the kind that usually follows a meeting between an American president and an Israeli PM. My guess is that Netanyahu felt that this image of the meeting would serve him better at home. He probably understood well before the meeting that sooner or later he would reach some sort of confrontation with the administration, and he wants to present a tough and consistent line (but not to create the fire himself). The PM is much more careful than in his previous term – when a meeting with Bill Clinton ended with the frustrated president asking “who’s the fucking superpower here?”

- The Syrian channel wasn’t mentioned. It is all but officially off the table.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sorry, our deputy FM is a fool as well

Posted: May 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off

If you thought foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman was doing Israel some damage, listen to his deputy, former ambassador in Washington, Danny Ayalon:

In response to Bashar Assad’s statement according to which Syria was keen to resume Middle East peace talks just as soon as it had someone it could deal with on the Israeli side, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon (Yisrael Beiteinu) said the Syrian president was “lying”.

“He does not want peace. For peace he would have to offer normalization and openness, and this may result in the collapse of his regime [...] Assad does not want to open Syria to the rest of the world because he is a tyrant.”

As I wrote before, even if you agree with Mr. Ayalon’s view of the Syrian leadership, these kind of statements are not very smart, as they portray Israel as the arrogant side who refuses compromise. And since we rule out the Syrian channel, the pressure to present some sort of progress on the Palestinian front will only intensify (which is not such a bad thing).

Read the rest of this entry »

Bibi Goes to Washington

Posted: May 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The NYT editorial from May 11th dealt with the much anticipated Obama-Netanyahu meeting that will take place this Monday, May 18th. It seems that while in Israel Netanyahu was able to reestablished his credibility before entering his second term as Prime Minister, the US media – and this probably goes for many Washington officials as well – still holds the image of the old Bibi. The NYT’s editorial demonstrates this well:

In his video speech to […] the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Mr. Netanyahu said he wants peace with the Palestinians. He even committed to negotiations “without any delay and without any preconditions.” But it rings hollow. He has resisted - and his foreign minister and unity government partner, Avigdor Lieberman, has openly derided - the two-state solution that is the only sensible basis for a lasting settlement that could anchor a regional peace.

“Hollow”? The best public speaker we ever had? That hurts. And there’s more:

Read the rest of this entry »

His Holiness, the Commander in Chief

Posted: May 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

With Washington becoming the capitol of the new Evil Empire in the eyes of the the right wing’s wackos, the Post’s Caroline Glick has an idea regarding whom we should turn to for international support:

Like nature, Israel’s strategic relations abhor a vacuum. In the wake of the Obama administration’s decision to drastically curtail the US’s strategic alliance with Israel in the interest of American rapprochement with Iran and Syria, the Netanyahu government has been moving swiftly to fill the void.

On Monday, with Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival and with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at Sharm e-Sheikh, two potential strategic alliances came into view.

Brilliant! Obama and his stealth fighter jets can go to hell – We are taking Iran with the pope!

The Vatican's Guard (VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)

The Vatican's Guard (VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)

Obama’s Middle East Plan

Posted: May 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The weekend papers dealt mainly with the new policy for the Middle East that US president Barak Obama is supposed to present in the following weeks, maybe even before his meeting with PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

Most pundits and reporters agree on this: the administration is determined to prevent Israel from attacking Iran (it is unclear whether Israel can actually do that on its own, and without flying over American occupied Iraq. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine the US shooting down Israeli jets). Obama will offer the Iranians some kind of deal – maybe one which will include financial benefits, in exchange for freezing its nuclear program and giving the UN inspectors unlimited access to all facilities.

Read the rest of this entry »