Monday, June 15, 2009

Benjamin Netanyahu Delivers Peace Policy Speech

On Sunday, June 14, Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a major policy speech from Bar Ilan University regarding peace with the Palestinians. The Israeli Prime Minister is walking a very thin line to maintain the support of both Israelis and Israel’s greatest ally, the United States. In my humble opinion, Bibi didn’t disappoint.

Netanyahu made overtures to satisfy both the USA and his governing coalition. The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has called for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Yesterday, breaking from his Likud party’s tradition, Netanyahu called for a Palestinian state as well, but with several conditions that ought to satisfy his colleagues in the Knesset:

  • Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state
  • A demilitarized Palestinian state
  • A dismissal of the Palestinian refugee ‘right of return’
  • An end to Palestinian incitement towards Israel and Jews
  • Economic ties and cooperation
  • A unified Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty

Nothing new here.

Israel has been asking for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state since the peace process began. Most recently, Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Fatah party and the Palestinian Prime Minister, rejected outright the notion of a Jewish state. “I do not accept it, it is not my job to give a description of the state. Name yourself the Hebrew Socialist Republic — it is none of my business.” (SOURCE) Then again, a Likud Prime Minister has never accepted a Palestinian state until yesterday, so we’ll see if Abbas changes his tune.

Consensus among Israelis since the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993 has been that a hostile and armed Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza would be an existential threat for Israel. Netanyahu repeatedly stressed the point of a demilitarized Palestinian state, citing the example of ‘Hamastan,’ better known as the Gaza strip, which Israel evacuated of any Jewish presence in 2005. Since the disengagement from Gaza, thousands of rockets have rained down upon southern Israeli cities and towns. Conditions in Sderot and Ashkelon are nearly unbearable. To wit, “between 75 percent and 94 percent of Sderot children aged 4-18 exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress” (SOURCE). Inflicting these conditions on western Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion airport is unacceptable.

For Israel, the Palestinian ‘right of return,’ —millions of Palestinian refugees and their families flooding Israel-proper—has never been an issue up for discussion, as it would put a demographic end to Israel’s standing as the Jewish state. Netanyahu contended that since Israel was able to absorb hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees, both Holocaust survivors and those expelled from Arab countries in 1948, a new Palestinian state should do the same. Frankly, that’s hard to argue with.

An end to Palestinian incitement against Israel and Jews, by both Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority and Hamas, has long been a condition for peace and, as of today, has yet to be met. Attacks have come from the Palestinian territories and beyond. To see with your own eyes the type of incitement to which Bibi is referring, check out The Middle East Media Research Institute’s website. (LINK)

Perhaps the most attainable peace condition is an economic cooperation and linkage between Israel and the Palestinians. Bibi mentioned potential avenues of collaboration, such as solar energy development, archaeological tourism, transportation, and oil pipelines. Netanyahu firmly believes that a stable and thriving Palestinian economy will do wonders for peace prospects, help to marginalize the radicals in Hamas and other organizations, and better the lives of the Palestinians. It’s not the whole shwarma (is that the equivalent of an enchilada?) of an independent state, but it certainly lays the groundwork and would enable both parties to move forward.

And now, quite possibly the thorniest issue of the peace process: a unified Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. The Israeli take is that Jerusalem has always been the capital of the Jewish people, stretching back for 3,000 years. So many prayers, sayings, and customs in Judaism involve Jerusalem (next year in Jerusalem, if I forget thee, o Jerusalem, the direction in which we pray, etc.) These references did not come about after the 6 Day War, mind you. Jerusalem has played a major part in our history as a people, and will continue to do so. Additionally, religious freedom in Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty is complete, and members of all faiths, be they Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, are allowed to worship at the city’s holy places. Finally, under Israeli control, Jerusalem has thrived as both a spiritual center and a modern metropolis. Jerusalem still retains its ancient character in the Old City, yet manages to be a 21st century capital outside the Old City’s gates. The Israeli argument against dividing Jerusalem is that, under Jordanian control from 1948-1967, Jerusalem was not a free city for all worshippers and did not experience the growth and prosperity it has had under Israeli control. Now the Arabs are pining to control it again. Sounds like they have a thing or two to learn from Joni Mitchell about appreciating something while you’ve got it.

I dug a few other aspects of Bibi’s speech, such as his refutation of the claim that Israel’s rebirth was due to the Holocaust, a view espoused by both President Obama in his Cairo speech last week and Iran’s newly “re-elected” president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I’m not comparing the two, by the way, just their views. Israel was created to be the Jewish state because it is and always has been the Jewish people’s homeland. Enough said. I also enjoyed how Netanyahu brought up the Jewish people’s bona fides as a peace-loving nation. Again, as with Jerusalem, just listen for ‘Shalom’ when you’re at synagogue the next time. It’ll be there a ton, and not in the hello or goodbye context.

That’s a lot to read, I know. To be fair, it was a pretty long speech and I didn’t want to do it an injustice by reducing it to soundbites. It will be interesting to see how this speech plays with the Obama administration, Israel, the Palestinians, and the wider Arab world. Of course, this speech won’t put an end to the conflict; hell hasn’t frozen over and pigs still don’t fly. Pigs, however, can give us the flu and are inedible for both Jews and Muslims. At least there’s one thing we can agree on.

Links to Netanyahu’s speech, both in talkie and transcript form, below.

Netanyahu Speech in Full (BBC)

Full text of Netanyahu's foreign policy speech at Bar Ilan (Haaretz)

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