By Joharah Baker – Jerusalem
For some reason, everyone wanted to hear what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to say in his policy speech given on June 14. After the right-winger finished and the analysis began to flow, a few things became certain, first and foremost that nothing in this cursed conflict has really changed, at least for the better.
Many political pundits are saying that Netanyahu catered his speech to accommodate new worldly US President Barack Obama and his policies, which he outlined on June 4 in Cairo. Hence, came the two words Netanyahu hates most – Palestinian state. It was not however, a declaration of conceding to the idea that Palestinians deserved a sovereign and independent country. No, Netanyahu almost choked the words out, like a person who is made to swallow poison. The Israeli premier did say those words, but almost in the same breath he ticked off his conditions for this to happen – one, the Palestinians would have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a homeland for the Jewish people, and two, any state that may come into being would have to be completely demilitarized. This was, believe it or not, after Netanyahu called on the Palestinians to "begin peace negotiations immediately without prior conditions." Israel he said, "is committed to international agreements, and expects all sides to fulfill their obligations." Really?
What a farce. Netanyahu would have done better by not saying anything at all. At least that way, he would have stuck to his so-called principles. Instead, his speech amounted to nothing, a big, fat "zero" in the words of Palestinian presidential advisor Yasser Abed Rabbo. He did not back down on so-called natural growth in settlements, saying the settlers, whom he forgot to mention were living on Palestinian land illegally, must lead normal lives. Jerusalem, of course, would remain the eternal capital of Israel, refugees would never be allowed to return home and apparently there would be no return to the 1967 borders. What’s worse, Netanyahu built his entire speech on the premise that all past and present hindrances to achieving peace were the fault of the Palestinians. We (and the Arabs) rejected the partition plan, we resorted to "terror", we would not accept Israel’s extended hand in peace. In short, according to the premier, "The simple truth is that the root of the conflict has been and remains – the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to its own state in its historical homeland."
Well, at least we know. It is all our fault. "The closer we get to a peace agreement with them, the more they [the Palestinians] are distancing themselves from peace. They raise new demands. They are not showing us that they want to end the conflict," Netanyahu maintained.
Nothing has changed. Since Netanyahu apparently made his speech to quiet the rumblings in Washington over his intransigence on both the settlement issue and his lack of endorsement of a Palestinian state, we have only to look at the White House response to see that it is business as usual. That is, Netanyahu seems to have placated America, at least for the time being. In a written statement following the Israeli Prime Minister’s speech, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration viewed Netanyahu’s conditional endorsement of a limited Palestinian state as an "important step forward."
Gibbs went on to read, "The president is committed to two states, a Jewish state of Israel and an independent Palestine, in the historic homeland of both peoples. He believes this solution can and must ensure both Israel’s security and the fulfillment of the Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations for a viable state, and he welcomes Prime Minister Netanyahu’s endorsement of that goal."
Netanyahu really didn’t endorse that goal at all. There was nothing in his speech that suggested he supported a "viable" Palestinian state nor did he mention anything about "Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations."
Obviously, this shows that Netanyahu is smarter than he sometimes comes across to be. Everyone has been eyeing what shift in dimension Israeli-American relations may take after the two leaders came into office. While they got off to a bumpy start, Netanyahu was not about to jeopardize his country’s strong relationship with the US, even if this meant sugar-coating his words just a bit. In the end, he is a politician.
It seemed to have worked as well. Everyone realizes nothing positive is going to come of Netanyahu’s term in office, especially in regards to a push towards Palestinian statehood. But, with this policy speech in which he made himself utter the unutterable words "Palestinian state", he has pushed the pacifier back into America’s mouth, at least for now. Let’s be honest. This has been Israeli-American policy for years, regardless of who ran their respective governments. The US has been calling for a peaceful resolution based on the two-state solution for years and Israel’s governments have verbally endorsed that solution all the same. On the ground though, we are no closer to the realization of a Palestinian state than we were under former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who openly "supported" the two-state solution. The difference today however, is represented in the leaders of the two countries, differences that may just serve as catalysts for some real change.
First there is Netanyahu, who unlike his predecessors does not mince his words. This policy speech was the farthest he has ever gone in terms of Palestinian statehood, which proves how hard line he really is. We have a man who is not embarrassed to say he doesn’t support an independent Palestinian state or that Jerusalem is non-negotiable. His politically-incorrect bluntness could just be the thing that will urge America to take a harder stance with its ally, especially when the euphoria of his latest speech wears off in Washington.
Hence, the second major difference, US President Barack Obama. In sharp contrast to George W Bush, with his limited vocabulary, cowboy mentality of "with us or against us", Obama is educated, eloquent and worldly and seems honestly to want change. He is not looking to exclude anyone, including Iran and Hamas and he made it clear that a two-state solution is the only way to resolve this conflict.
Whether or not Obama will have the power or time to actually realize this goal, it is hard to say. There are huge obstacles in the way, such as Israel’s adamancy not to change the status quo, Palestinian internal division and the pull of the Jewish lobby within the United States.
Still, there is always room for hope, not in anything Netanyahu has to offer, but in our own strength to utilize these new players to our advantage. Obama may be able to set these wheels in motion, if he continues to have the political will to do so. It remains for us to bring it home.
– Joharah Baker is a writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org).