President Barack Obama, currently in Europe trying to muster opposition to the Palestinians who are seeking recognition of statehood by the U.N. General Assembly in September, had hoped Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would help him out — by using his address to a joint meeting of the Congress on Tuesday to offer peace terms that could restart talks. That would allow Obama to argue that any U.N. action would be beside the point, or even harmful to an evolving peace process. The problem for Obama, however, even if he tries to put the best face on it (as he will, no doubt), is that the peace terms outlined by Netanyahu on Tuesday are unlikely to tempt the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. The rapturous reception for the Israeli leader on Capitol Hill made clear that his position enjoys solid support in Washington. But if it fails to breathe new life into the stalled peace process with the Palestinians, then the international community’s impatience, of which Obama warned about on Sunday, is likely to translate into further diplomatic pressure on Israel.
Netanyahu insisted that he was “willing to make painful concessions to achieve [a] historic peace” with the Palestinians and made clear that this would require that Israel “give up parts of the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people.” He railed against the notion of occupation, saying that in Judea and Samaria — the biblical names traditionally used on the right of Israel’s political spectrum for what is internationally known as the West Bank — “Jewish people are not foreign occupiers.” Instead, he stressed what he said was a “4,000-year-old bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land.”
Still, he said, “the Palestinians share this small land with us,” and “we seek a peace in which they’ll be neither Israel’s subjects nor its citizens” but would live as a “free, viable and independent people in their own state.”
The reason such a state has not emerged, Netanyahu argued, is that “so far the Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state if that meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it.” In other words, the obstacle to peace is Palestinian obduracy.
In fact, the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and the national homeland of the Jewish people as a precondition to peace was first made by Netanyahu himself in 2009, and the Palestinian leadership responded by saying it was a red herring. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist within the Oslo Accords and that Israel was free to define its own character. Palestinian leaders remain reluctant to take a position that would appear to diminish the rights of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, which include a million Palestinians.
But the underlying issue is the fate of the Palestinian refugees: the Palestinian leadership wants the refugees’ right of return as established by U.N. resolutions to be part of the negotiating process, even if the outcome of talks involves an agreement to settle them primarily in a new Palestinian state. But Netanyahu made clear that the fate of the Palestinian refugees was not Israel’s concern and that it would have to be resolved outside of Israel’s borders. Indeed, he challenged Abbas to lay to rest “the fantasy that Israel will one day be flooded by the descendants of Palestinian refugees.” Essentially, the Israeli leader was demanding that Abbas make clear to his people that which he may have been prepared to accept in previous rounds of talks. But even if they’re prepared to compromise on the outcome, the Palestinians are unlikely to simply drop the refugee issue from its designated place among the “final status” issues to be resolved in the peace process.
While Abbas may have been willing to accept a deal under which Israel would keep the major settlement blocs in exchange for equivalent land from inside Israel’s 1967 borders, he sees it as a matter of international law rather than one of Israeli generosity. Part of the logic of going to the U.N. for a ruling on sovereignty, in fact, is to establish the principle in international law that all West Bank land is the Palestinians’ to trade away, rather than, as Netanyahu suggested on the basis of biblical claims, Israel’s to concede.
“We’ll be generous about the size of a Palestinian state,” said Netanyahu, “but we’ll be very firm about where we put the border with it,” stressing that Israel would not return to the borders of June 4, 1967. Israel’s “unique security requirements” would also have to be at the forefront of any peace agreement, the Prime Minister stressed, and that would require, among other things, “that Israel maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River” — i.e., that the Palestinian state’s border with its only Arab neighbor, Jordan, be effectively policed by Israeli troops.
And if the vague promise of generosity while also claiming the major settlement blocs and the right to a long-term military presence in the Palestinian state were not likely to be welcomed by Abbas as a basis for renewed talks, Netanyahu had more bad news for the Palestinian leader: Israel is not prepared to share Jerusalem as the capital of both states, despite the international consensus on the issue.
After telling Congress that only Israel could be trusted to maintain freedom of worship for all faiths, Netanyahu insisted that “Jerusalem must never again be divided; Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel.” Disagreement over the Holy City had been a key deal breaker at Camp David in 2000, and no Palestinian or Arab leader would be willing to accept Palestinian statehood without Jerusalem despite Netanyahu’s pledge that “with creativity and goodwill, a solution can be found” to the difficulties that his position on Jerusalem presents for the Palestinians.
The Israeli Prime Minister then added a final hurdle for Abbas to cross in order to restart talks: he would have to reverse the reconciliation agreement that his Fatah movement has struck with Hamas, the Islamist movement that has engaged in both terrorism attacks and successful electoral politics, and which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a precondition for negotiations. “We will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by the Palestinian version of al-Qaeda,” Netanyahu thundered. “I say to President Abbas, tear up your pact with Hamas and sit down and negotiate with Israel.”
The agreement with Hamas, of course, was concluded by Abbas under pressure from his base, seized by the spirit of the Arab Spring. He’d only likely tear it up if he believed negotiating with Israel could yield an outcome sufficiently acceptable to justify such a move to the Palestinian public. And he’s unlikely to see such an outcome on the basis of what Netanyahu said on Capitol Hill.
A spokesman for Abbas predictably rejected Netanyahu’s demands, claiming that he had put “more obstacles” in the path to peace. A resumption of talks looks as unlikely after Tuesday’s speech as it did before Netanyahu spoke.
Obama noted in his speech to the Israel lobbying organization AIPAC on Sunday that the Palestinians were finding the international community receptive to their efforts to pursue their interests at the U.N. because of the “impatience with the peace process, or the absence of one.” The President warned that “the march to isolate Israel internationally — and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations — will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process. And for us to have leverage with the Palestinians, to have leverage with the Arab states and with the international community, the basis for negotiations has to hold out the prospect of success.”
The smart money says that the coming months are more likely to see an escalation of the diplomatic confrontation than an outbreak of peace.