Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Nrtanyahu gave a speech in Israel yesterday widely viewed as a response to President Obama’s Cairo speech. In it, Netanyahu conceded, for the first time, acceptance of the idea of a Palestinian state. He also provided an absolutely predictable and well worn set of conditions for proceeding toward the goal of two states that effectively guarantee that progress toward that goal will not occur.
Bibi’s continued (and, one assumes, heartfelt) reluctance to embrace a real Palestinian state is evident in the three conditions he places on progress toward the goal. First, he insists that the Palestinian state must be demilitarized and that there be international guarantees that Palestine will not develop a military capability. Second, he insists that the Palestinian state cede control over its air space, leaving that under the domain of the Israeli Air Force. Third, he insists that the Palestinians formally accept Israel as a Jewish state. The first two concerns arise from Israeli fears that a Palestinian state will become a sanctuary for attacks on Israel, with Hamas action in Gaza as thebasis for comparison. The third is to undermine any future argument the Palestinians might have for a return of Israeli territory to Palestinian control.
The speech was also notable for what it did not say. On the major point of contention between the U.S. and Israel, Bibi did not accept the principle of freezing and rolling back West Bank settlements. Instead, he agreed not to build new settlements but to allow the :natural growth” of those that exist. Second, he explicitly rejected the “right of return” of former Palestinian residents of Israel to go back to and reclaim territory they fled in 1948. Third, he reiterated his position that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel alone, thereby rejecting any claims the Palestinians had toward parts of the city and their claim that Jerusalem is also their capital.
Does the Netanyau speech break new ground or constitute any movement forward in the peace process to which the Obama administration appears committed? The answer is clearly that it does not. The speech was a rhetorical acceptance of the two-state principle, presumably to unruffle some feathers in Washington, but it continues to contain barriers to progress that guarantee that no progress is made. Was that the whole purpose of the speech? It certainly appears that way.