Bibi leaves lots of wiggle room
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In the run up to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s remarks at Bar-Ilan University on Sunday, media speculation was intense but the overriding feeling was that precious little was to come.
Yet in the event, Mr Netanyahu did something few thought he would, and certainly not just two-and-a-half months into his premiership — he spoke of a “Palestinian state”.
True, it would have to be demilitarised, but nonetheless, he uttered those words. When he was in coalition-building talks in February and March, the more dovish Kadima party refused to join his government precisely because he would not countenance a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
But Mr Obama’s speech in Cairo 10 days earlier, coupled with intense international pressure in the interim, clearly led Netanyahu to reassess the pervading real politique.
The Israeli leader spoke to a packed auditorium, the country, the international community, opinion formers, the Arab world and arguably most significantly to the Palestinian leadership and people.
When your audience is basically the whole world, chances are you are not going to please everyone. To Mr Netanyahu’s credit, he did try.
In a 30-minute speech, Mr Netanyahu focused almost entirely on the Palestinian issue. Israel would recognise a Palestinian state in return for a Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish homeland. Any state of Palestine would be demilitarised and its borders secured by international forces.
At the same time he intimated that existing settlement blocs would remain in the West Bank and they would be expanded to take natural growth into account.
All of this was not said directly — allowing wiggle room in both directions.
As a result, many on the political right at home were relieved by his remarks. Doves saw them as a first step forward as did the international community, including Obama.
However, the Palestinians were less than impressed.
Some Palestinian leaders used strong language in decrying Netanyahu’s formula. The terms he attached to peace and a Palestinian state were nothing more than preconditions that make negotiations impossible, they said. Even the relative pragmatist President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt said Netanyahu had closed the door on peace.
Yet Mubarak, the Palestinians and Netanyahu know the speech and the Palestinian reaction were merely the opening shots in a very long, tortuous process. No savvy negotiator lays out all their cards on day one — if they do, it is checkmate within hours. Netanyahu’s speech was a bargaining position, where he made a gesture — one that history may record as having been very bold — but no more.
He was not setting preconditions to talks. He was merely answering Mr Obama’s request that the parties say in public what they also express in private. That was Mr Obama’s way of telling the sides to make the public aware of their commitment to peace or lack thereof.
Israel now believes the ball is in the Palestinian court and Ramallah needs to make its stance clear, with a view to rebooting the peace process as soon as possible.
David Harris is a veteran journalist based in Israel, and CEO of media
consultancy DZH Services Ltd