This evening at the Begin-Sadat Center in Ramat Gan, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu delivered a highly anticipated speech in response to rising tension between Israel and the US. BBC World News posted a video of the translated speech.
Bibi demanded Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, and demilitarization, as preconditions for a Palestinian state. His willingness to use the phrase "Palestinian state" is rhetorical progress, but otherwise the speech is generally lacking in significant developments.
Netanyahu predicates peace on moves to be made by the Palestinian government. But this has empirically proven to be a losing strategy, and Netanyahu knows it full well. At this point, Netanyahu is trying to deflect the impetus for action off of him in order to relieve pressure from Washington and also maintain his political constituency. The settlement issue remains contentious, but by using the word "state" Netanyahu was able to still gain a positive reaction from the White House, which called the speech an "important step forward."
It is also significant that Netanyahu did not speak extensively about Iran, mentioning Friday's election only in passing. This lent credibility to his speech as not a general defense of his government but as a policy statement on the Israeli-Palestinian process. It also made him appear less defensive by not shifting the debate to the Iran issue. If nothing else, the speech was a clarification of his existing views and a solid logical defense of his position.
However, Netanyahu's prerequisites put an onus on the Palestinian government which is utopian and unecessary for a final status agreement. There are extensive measures the PA can undertake to recognize Israeli legitimacy short of a straight-out policy statement. These include negotiation with Israel, creation of trade agreements, and partnering on common security objectives. From a security standpoint, these measures would be sufficient to create a secure Israeli state alongside a Palestinian one. They also all entain implicit recognition of Israel.
The demand for demilitarization is a bit more complex. On the one hand, the guarantee of long-term Israeli security from Palestinians is a reasonable and necessary component of a final status agreement. On the other hand, a completely demilitarized Palestinian state will not have sufficient legitimacy and the ability to defend itself from insurgencies which are likely to attempt to degrade the sovereignty of its government. If the PA wants to rid the Palestinian state of a Hamas cell, for example, it should have sufficient capability to do so. The specific line between Palestinian and Israeli security is not clearly drawn, but it is clear that it cannot be drawn where Bibi draws it.
Netanyahu's speech was a solid policy statement and well-delivered. Washinton will need to be careful in walking the balance between encouraging Netanyahu's bid for reconciliation and over-encouraging the kind of rhetorical facade which yields no policy developments behind it. Netanyahu emerged from the speech looking stronger, but not victorious over the US demand for settlement freezing. The impetus for action is now on Obama to move the process forward.
1) "White House Calls Netanyahu Speech 'Important Step Forward' in Peace Process," Fox News, June 14, 2009.