It certainly has been a big weekend with the Iranian elections on Friday and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s policy address last night, which came off the back of his meeting with Obama nearly a month ago, and Obama’s address to the Muslim world earlier this month.
Even before he had a chance to speak, everyone seemed to have an opinion about it: What would he say? What wouldn’t he say? What concessions would he make? Would it be enough to satisfy the US or at least pacify them?
Internally there were conflicting fears from the right and left, most worrying about whether he would use the term “two-state solution” and what would be his stance on the issue of the settlements. The Palestinian Authority was also worried about this, with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and added, “Israel must fulfill all its obligations under the terms of the Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Israel must also abide by all the United Nations resolutions and the road map plan” (see more). Apparently the United States even requested to see Netanyahu’s speech before the event, and when Netanyahu outlined to U.S envoy George Mitchell what he planned to say, a senior US official declared that it was “not adequate” to satisfy Washington (see more).
This all played out before Netanyahu even had the chance speak. One commentator had an interesting perspective on the issue of the United States, declaring, “Netanyahu’s coalition will not collapse even if on Sunday he says everything that Obama wishes to hear, but is this Netanyahu’s mission? Was he elected prime minister by the citizens of Israel or by the Obama administration? Who does Netanyahu represent in fact? If Israel must fully implement US directives, why do we bother to elect a government here every two and a half years? (see more). While the interests of a country’s citizens should be at the forefront of any country’s agenda, Israel still needs to be a member of the international community and act accordingly.
Declaring from the outset that “peace was always the desire of our people”, Netanyahu outlined the three “tremendous” challenges that Israel is currently facing; the Iranian threat, the financial crisis, and the promotion of peace. For the full text of the speech, click here.
Netanyahu stressed the importance of regional peace and referred back to his talks with President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan about expanding the “circle of peace” in the region. He declared, “I appeal tonight to the leaders of the Arab countries and say: Let us meet. Let us talk about peace. Let us make peace. I am willing to meet at any time, at any place, in Damascus, in Riyadh, in Beirut, and in Jerusalem as well.” One of the solutions he offered for achieving this peace is through economic means, for example by joining up in projects to help overcome regional problems, such as water desalinization and maximizing the use of solar energy. He also suggested that there is huge potential to create thousands of jobs through the joint promotion of tourism by appealing to those “who want to walk in the footsteps of history, in Nazareth and Bethlehem, in the heights of Jericho and on the walls of Jerusalem, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and at the baptismal site of the Jordan [river]”.
Netanyahu echoed the words of Theodor Herzl’s vision of a Jewish homeland and said “this is so big, we must talk about it only in the simplest words possible.” He also declared that that “in order to achieve peace, we need courage and integrity on the part of leaders of both sides…. We need courage and sincerity not only on the Israeli side: we need the Palestinian leadership to rise and say, simply ‘we have had enough of this conflict. We recognize the right of the Jewish People to a state of its own in this Land. We will live side by side in true peace’.” Until now, this idea of recognizing Israel as a Jewish State has been quite a sticking point for the PA.
Netanyahu talked about the Palestinian refugee problem – another sticking point in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for many years now. He believes that the issue needs to be solved outside of the borders of the State of Israel. He also cited an example to prove that this can be done; the example of the 800,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries who were successfully taken in and resettled by Israel.
When Obama addressed the Muslim world a few weeks ago, he began his part about Israel by referring back to the Holocaust. Netanyahu addressed the idea by saying, “There are those who say that without the Holocaust the State would not have been established, but I say that if the State of Israel had been established in time, the Holocaust would not have taken place.” He also acknowledges what Obama failed to; that Israel was not born from the atrocities of the Holocaust, but that Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people.
In addressing this point, Netanyahu then went on to focus on the fact that there also a large population of Palestinians living on the same land, and that their needs and concerns need to be dealt with. He stated “We do not want to rule over them. We do not want to run their lives. We do not want to force our flag and our culture on them. In my vision of peace, there are two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighbourly relations and mutual respect, it with its flag, anthem and government, with neither one threatening its neighbours security and existence”. He also declared that Israel has to recognise international agreements. Perhaps in the end some will not be satisfied with the fact that he did not say the magic three words: “two-state solution”. Perhaps this will be what people believe is the real stumbling block, but I think he still expressed the need for the Palestinians to have their own state, and to govern themselves.
The Palestinian state the Netanyahu envisions must truly recognise Israel as the state of the Jewish people and he believes that it must be demilitarized. This means that they would have no army and no airspace. It would mean that effective measures would have to be taken to ensure that arms are not brought in, like what is going on in Gaza. It would also mean that they are unable to make treaties with Iran or Hezbollah; such treaties could bring about the total destruction of Israel and will not be accepted by Israel.
Netanyahu also talked about having no intention of building new settlements or setting aside land for new settlements. However, he did stress that “there is a need to have people live normal lives and let mothers and fathers raise their children like everyone in the world”, which alludes to the call made by many to halt even the ‘natural growth’ in settlements.
Netanyahu expressed the concern that Palestinians need to choose the path of peace and not the path of Hamas. He said that “Israel will not sit down at a conference table with terrorists who seek to destroy it”. He then addressed the plight of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who in just ten days will pass three years in Hamas captivity, by highlighting how Hamas has not even allowed the Red Cross in to visit him.
He finished by issuing a challenge to Arab and Palestinian leaders: “Let’s go in the path of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein. Let’s go in the path of Prophet Isaiah, who spoke thousands of years ago, they shall beat their swords into plowshares and know war no more. Let us know war more. Let us know peace.”
The United States immediately welcomed Netanyahu’s speech, with a statement relayed from the White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs declaring, “The President welcomes the important step forward in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech. The President is committed to two states, a Jewish state of Israel and an independent Palestine, in the historic homeland of both peoples” (see more).
The Australian government has also endorsed the speech with Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith stating, “What Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech reflects today is there is now a basis for a peace process for negotiations to commence… We welcome the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu has, for the first occasion, indicated that peace in the Middle East has to be based on a two-state solution” (see more).
Not surprisingly, the Palestinian Authority has reacted strongly to the speech. An aid to Mahmoud Abbas has said that the speech “sabotages” peace efforts because of his refusal to accept Palestinian refugees and unwillingness to compromise on Jerusalem. Nabil Abu Rudeinah stated, “Netanyahu’s remarks have sabotaged all initiative, paralyzed all efforts being made and challenges the Palestinian, Arab and American positions” (see more). They also declared that “It’s obvious, in the aftermath of this speech, that we are headed towards another round of violence and bloodshed”. Calling Netanyahu a “swindler and a liar” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior PLO official declared that “Netanyahu is creating tricks to sabotage the peace process. The response to Netanyahu must be firm” (see more). I am no expert, but I think threatening a third Intifada (uprising) will also sabotage peace efforts, given the fact that violence seems to be the fundamental obstacle to peace.
Mr. Abbas, I challenge you not to wait next time for Netanyahu or any future Israeli leader to make the first step. I challenge you to be courageous and say, we may not accept Netanyahu’s terms but we are extending our hands in genuine peace. If you are committed peace, you can be the one to act bravely. I suspect, Mr. Abbas, that you could never do that in honesty and with transparency, and that is why it is a lot easier to place the responsibility solely on Israel; to wait for someone else to make the first move.
Ultimately, the leaders – Netanyahu, Obama, Abbas – can talk all they like. What the Middle East really needs though, is some serious action. I do not fear what will happen if Obama or the Quartet acts. I do not fear what will happen if Netanyahu or any future Israeli leader acts with courage and does what is necessary to achieve a lasting peace with their neighbours. I do fear other words though. I fear the words of Israel’s closest neighbours, who threaten to be “firm” with Israel, and envisage bloodshed and violence based on Netanyahu’s words. I fear the words of the recently re-elected leader of Iran, who for years now has been calling for Israel to be wiped off the map. So let us focus on the genuine actions of those who genuinely seek peace in the Middle East.
Speaking of Iran, as you all know, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected on Friday, nabbing 63% of the vote. The election has set off a chain of events including the house arrest of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main election challenger, riots across the country, the arrest of over 100 reformists, and claims that the results were fraudulent (see more). Today’s Australian even carries an article entitled ‘Ayatollahs “calling the shots” despite democratic process’, which cites an Israeli analyst who believes that based on studies conducted about Iranian clerics “Ahmadinejad was chosen to erase the democratic changes that have occurred in Iran over the years and return the country to the era of the Islamic revolution 30 years ago”.
Over the weekend, I heard different reactions regarding the elections. For example, Barry Rubin’s blog offers a lot of insight into the issue. Today’s Age cites Israeli commentator Yoav Limor, who says “for years Israel thought that Ahmadinejad was a disaster, but recently the approach has changed and decision makers have adopted an approach that considers him a ‘gift’. Why? Because a moderate president would speak softly, and the world would be tempted to believe him and would refrain from confrontation, and behind the scenes Iran would continue to gallop, unhampered by sanctions towards nuclear capability” (see more). To put it more simply, as today’s Sydney Morning Herald’s headline says: “better the devil you know”. I am not a political analyst and I am certainly no expert on Iran, but I keep hearing this idea of better the devil you know, which I think, in the case of Iran, is more aptly described as better the irrational homicidal manic you know.
Israel Advocacy Analyst
Zionist Council of Victoria