EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: In his address at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Netanyahu successfully redefined the Israeli consensus and became a mainstream political leader. Netanyahu’s centrist approach also strengthened his ruling coalition and enhanced his position in a potential confrontation with Washington.
After US President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech on June 4, 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not only felt the need to respond to the American leader, but also to address the Israeli people. In his speech on June 14th at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Netanyahu successfully redefined the Israeli consensus and became a mainstream political leader. Over 70 percent of Israelis found themselves in agreement with Netanyahu – quite a feat for the Israeli Prime Minister. In the address, Netanyahu stressed the historic rights of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel (Palestine) and rejected Obama’s interpretation of the Holocaust as legitimation for the Jewish state. He pointed out that a Jewish state where persecuted Jews could flee the Nazis would have prevented the Holocaust.
Despite the ancient Jewish claim to its historic patrimony, Netanyahu expressed willingness for a territorial compromise in order to satisfy the national needs of the Palestinians (a two-state solution). A large majority of Israelis is ready for a repartition of the Land of Israel.
Netanyahu’s acceptance of a Palestinian state came with conditions. His demand for a demilitarized state reflects the ingrained and justified Israeli fears of their dangerous neighbors. Since Oslo, more Israelis have been killed by Palestinians than during the 1973 October War. Netanyahu also demanded the long overdue recognition of Israel as the Jewish nation-state. In line with Israeli consensus, he insisted on Jerusalem remaining the undivided capital of the Jewish state and opposed a total freeze on building in the settlements.
The speech positioned Netanyahu at the center of Israeli politics, maintaining the strength of his coalition. Even the hawkish faction within his party, the Likud, understands that statements in favor of the two-state paradigm are not enough to create a new political reality. Therefore, the party hawks do not rebel against Netanyahu. Moreover, Netanyahu has even succeeded with the opposition; a majority of the Kadima party in the Knesset prefers to join the government. Capturing the center of Israeli politics stabilizes the ruling coalition and will allow Netanyahu flexibility if there is an opportunity for peace, as well as the needed stature to lead Israel in continuous protracted conflict.
Relations with the US
Netanyahu’s centrist approach also strengthened the chances that his coalition will survive potential tensions with Washington. Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to mention the two-state solution to please the US.
It is not yet clear if Washington is looking for a confrontation with Jerusalem by focusing on a total settlement freeze. Israelis are likely to view such an insistence primarily as a pretext for ulterior motives and are likely to support their government. After all, the territory of the settlements is less than 2 percent of the West Bank and even the PLO agreed to an exchange of territory to incorporate the bloc settlements into Israel. Israelis reject a total freeze in the settlement blocs near the 1967 border line, wanting these areas incorporated into Israel in a future peace deal.
Moreover, the Israeli political system has demonstrated its capacity to remove settlements when necessary. Israel dismantled settlements in Sinai in the framework of a peace treaty with Egypt in 1981 and in Gaza and Samaria in 2005. Finally, the Palestinian demand to receive a Judenrein area is racist and unacceptable. If Israel hosts an Arab minority, why can’t a few thousands of Jews reside in a Palestinian state, which occupies part of the Jewish homeland?
The Obama vision of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement within two years is not realistic. While in Cairo, Obama suggested that the Muslim world adopt a pragmatic approach because Israel is a fait accompli that cannot be eradicated. Pragmatism is hardly characteristic of the Palestinian political culture. Israel is still viewed as a temporary entity implanted by the West in the middle of the Muslim patrimony, evident from the Palestinian refusal to accept the generous offer by Ehud Barak in 2000 and the even more generous proposal by Ehud Olmert in 2008. Finally, the Palestinians are beleaguered by internal divisions, culminating with the Hamas takeover of Gaza. They suffer from corruption at the highest levels and the inability to build a state. Palestinian society under the spell of Hamas is moving in the wrong direction.
The Israeli government will try to avert a crisis in US-Israeli relations and will hope for a fast learning curve by the naïve Obama administration. Jerusalem can still count on a reservoir of friendship on Capitol Hill and by the American public at large. Due to this support, Israel might decide to put up a fight and play for time.
Hopefully, Obama will eventually learn that American speeches are not going to reform societies deep in crisis. And Obama, with his idealism and good intentions, can hardly make a difference. So far he has shown little character toward North Korea and seemed to pass the opportunity to erode the dictatorial grip of the anti-American Ayatollas in Iran.
From Jerusalem, Obama looks more like a rookie with scant understanding of world affairs, while Netanyahu increasingly appears as a responsible leader. If they are headed toward confrontation, Israelis are likely to choose the mainstream Netanyahu over the misguided, liberal Obama.
Efraim Inbar is Professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University and Director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.