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GI Israel Director-General interviewed following PM Netanyahu's speech

On Tuseday, June 16th, Geneva Initiative Israel Director-General, Gadi Baltiansky was interviewed by IPF's Dr. Steven Spiegel.

16.06.2009

Gadi Baltiansky: An Israeli View of the Netanyahu Speech

On Tuesday, June 16, Dr. Steven L. Spiegel interviewed Gadi Baltiansky, Director General of the Geneva Initiative and former Press Secretary for Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Baltiansky addressed Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech at Bar Ilan University and steps for the future of the peace process. The following is a summary of his remarks.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy speech was a big step for Netanyahu, but a small step for peace. It was a significant step for Netanyahu because, for the first time, he uttered the phrase “Palestinian state.” It was also the first successful thing that he accomplished since becoming prime minister: forming the government was a failure; handling the budget was a failure; and his trip to Washington could not be called a success.

But, finally, he did something that most Israelis liked and supported. His approval rating even went up and the only elements within Israeli society that strongly spoke out against the speech were from the extreme right and the extreme left.

The speech itself, which lasted for about twenty-five minutes, consisted of twenty-four minutes of right-wing rhetoric followed by a one-minute message on a Palestinian state. He spoke for that minute, however, without demonstrating that he has made an ideological shift, as Menachem Begin and Ehud Olmert previously had done. He didn’t use the term “two-state solution,” he didn’t say “two states for two people,” he even almost didn’t call the Palestinians, people—he called them a population, a public. He talked about a Palestinian state as if he was in the dentist chair, as if he was being forced to say something.

The most revealing sentence that he did say, by way of introducing his comments on a Palestinian state, was, “This policy must take into account the international situation.” With those words he was really saying one word: Obama. He essentially said, “Look, I’m stating this new policy because of one person. There is a new international situation. There is a new player, a new sheriff in town, and that is why I’m saying something that I have never said before.”

President Obama was correct to take Netanyahu's word on a Palestinian state. Netanyahu previously opposed a Palestinian state, but now anyone who would argue that Netanyahu is against a state will be considered pathetic. The speech has marginalized anyone who is against a Palestinian state. So while Netanyahu’s remarks set up limitations, reservations, and conditions on a state, it created a consensus that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end with the creation of a Palestinian state.

The Conditions

Israelis have two redlines vis-à-vis the conflict with the Palestinians. The first is the right of return; Israelis are against a massive return of Palestinian refugees into Israel. The second is security; Israelis want guarantees that Israel’s security needs will be met. Netanyahu took Israel’s redlines and set them as conditions: by saying that Palestinians must recognize Israel as a homeland of the Jewish people he was speaking to Israeli fears on demography and the right of return, and when speaking on Israel’s security needs, he was really speaking to Israeli fears of Hamas.

Considering that most Israelis are skeptical that the creation of a Palestinian state is possible within the next few years, Netanyahu spoke to a consensus. Since most Israelis don’t believe a Palestinian state will be created anytime soon, the question being asked is who will be blamed for not achieving an agreement; not if there will be an agreement or not, but rather whose fault it will be when there isn’t one. By using those conditions, Netanyahu expected a negative response from the Palestinians, which he received. Therefore, Netanyahu has embraced a solution, but conditioned it in such a way that the Palestinians will be the ones who say no.

A Demilitarized Palestinian State

Binyamin Netanyahu did not reinvent the wheel when he spoke of a demilitarized Palestine. Every Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiation spoke of a demilitarized state. The Palestinians themselves have said that they don’t want an army. The Geneva Accords, for example, describe a demilitarized state with two Israeli early warning stations. But any arrangement is part of a comprehensive and detailed agreement, not a precondition.

Recognizing Israel as a Jewish State

A distinction should be made between recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, and recognizing it as a homeland of the Jewish people. If Israel wants to be a Jewish state, it can change its name and become the Jewish state of Israel, and whoever recognizes Israel recognizes the Jewish state of Israel. But it is not a serious condition to insist that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state. However, to recognize that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people reflects something deep. It reflects the recognition of the Palestinians that this land is a homeland for two peoples—for Palestinians and for the Jews. This could be both something that Palestinians could accept and something that answers Israeli fears. Recognizing Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people would be a recognition that Israelis have a right to stay in Israel.

Settlement Growth

Defining settlement “growth” is important. “Natural growth” is often talked about in terms of accommodating the birth of babies, but if a baby is born on Fifth Avenue or elsewhere in America, it is not expected that the baby will have the right to live on that same avenue. But Israelis see it differently, and this is where the term natural growth may be problematic because they see this as something that is in fact “natural”—it has to do with babies, with kids. How can it be stopped?

On the one hand, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to stop every type of building in every place in the West Bank. On the other hand, Israel has cheated in the last few years. That is the truth. There was an ongoing mechanism of cheating, in fact, under the umbrella of natural growth, and the result was that the population of many settlements doubled or tripled. The Americans want to stop this mechanism.
The question now is what Netanyahu will do on the ground. I don’t believe that Israel will be able to stop the growth of every settlement that is next to the green line, and so will likely be included in Israel’s final borders. But either the Americans will agree to that growth, perhaps unofficially, for a certain price that Netanyahu would have to pay, or the Americans will punish Israel for doing that. They could say, “You want to build in a settlement? Fine, but don’t count on us to veto a UN resolution on settlements.” The Americans could also monitor settlement construction. They could say, “If you want to build a kindergarten in a settlement, than give us the details, and we will look into it in a joint committee.”

Nonetheless, the question of natural growth is not the real question. The real issue is not about freezing settlements, but rather about evacuating and dismantling them. The impression in Israel is that this administration talks about conflict resolution, not conflict management. You can freeze settlements if you want to manage the conflict, but if you want to resolve it, you need to move beyond freezing settlements. And that will be the real test.

The Power of an American President

The real test of the speech is how it will be translated into policy that will emanate from Jerusalem, Ramallah, and especially Washington. As polls showed, President Obama’s speech in Cairo had a very significant effect on the number of Israelis who believe that a permanent settlement with the Palestinians is possible within the coming years. The Israeli public sees an active American president, and in poll after poll, Israelis support a more active American role. If I were an advisor to President Obama, I would say to him: “Look at what you have accomplished in the three months since Binyamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister of Israel; just think what you can do in the future."
 
To hear an audio recording of the conference call please click here