May 30, 2011 Edition 14 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
Netanyahu's speech in Congress
"Other places of critical strategic and national importance"  - Yossi Alpher
Netanyahu's strategy is about American and Israeli public support, not a peace process.

No new ideas  - Ghassan Khatib
What really stood out for us in the Middle East were not Netanyahu's words.

At the heart of the Israeli consensus  - Efraim Inbar
The courage displayed by Israel's prime minister has earned him praise abroad and at home.

Despite the bluster, on to September  - Nabeel Kassis
Palestinians had no illusions.

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"Other places of critical strategic and national importance"
 Yossi Alpher
In his speech to the United States Congress last week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was addressing three target audiences. The least important for him was the Palestinians.

Netanyahu presumably understands that there is virtually no likelihood of a renewed peace process with the Palestinians in the months between now and September. Not only does the Israeli prime minister not offer enough to the Palestinians. The same President Mahmoud Abbas who turned down Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's far-reaching offer in September 2008 and essentially refused until now to negotiate with Netanyahu is not about to back off from his encounter with the United Nations in the fall. Hence, even though Netanyahu ostensibly presented a coherent opening negotiating position and invited the Palestinian leadership to respond to his "generosity"--an invitation to negotiate that, in striking contrast, was not forthcoming from US President Barack Obama in his speeches of the past ten days--serious talks were not Netanyahu's purpose.

Rather, Netanyahu sought primarily to recruit the support of American and Israeli public opinion. Judging by the unusual if not ludicrous reception Congress gave him and the findings of the latest Israeli opinion polls, he succeeded. He even managed in Congress to tone down his antagonism toward Obama, on the correct assumption that no one in Israel or America likes to see the kind of threat to the special relationship that Netanyahu displayed so arrogantly in his latest Oval Office appearance with the American president.

For whatever it's worth given the barren negotiations arena, Netanyahu has indeed moved closer to the Israeli consensus on a number of issues: a viable Palestinian state, giving up "parts of the ancestral Jewish homeland", "some settlements will end up beyond Israel's borders" while attaching the settlement blocs to Israel, a mere "long-term military presence along the Jordan River", a demilitarized Palestinian state, and rejection of Hamas as part of a Palestinian government represented by Palestinian negotiators. But because so large a portion of Netanyahu's ruling coalition is to the right of the Israeli consensus, he had to hedge his bets.

Hence, Jerusalem has to remain the united capital of Israel--a non-starter from the Palestinian standpoint. And hence the rather incredible demand, that seems to have been ignored in most analyses of Netanyahu's speech in Congress, that Israel be allowed under any agreement to hold onto "other places of critical strategic and national importance".

If it weren't so depressing, it could be entertaining to imagine how the Netanyahu government's supporters play with this phrase in order to assuage their doubts regarding the prime minister's apparent readiness to evacuate settlements in order to make room for a Palestinian state. Are the "Mayflower" settlements of Bet El and Ofra of national importance? Is the Machpelah cave in Hebron? Are one or two high hilltops in the West Bank of strategic importance because they can serve Israeli military reconnaissance objectives? This seemingly innocuous throwaway phrase must be to the settlers and their supporters what a pacifier is to a baby.

"Other places of critical strategic and national importance" tells us what we really need to know about Netanyahu's two-state strategy. It's about American and Israeli public support, not about a peace process. The Israeli prime minister apparently reasons that, armed with that support, he will weather the Palestinians' UN initiative in September and even weather the growing isolation of Israel and the possible ensuing intifada, fueled by the flames of Arab revolution all around us and by Iran and its Islamist allies.

Given the non-existence of a peace process and the looming threats, it makes a lot more sense for both Netanyahu and Obama to leverage the Palestinian UN initiative into a "win-win" proposition for both Israelis and Palestinians. Netanyahu is gambling with Israel's vital interests smugly, arrogantly--and recklessly.-Published 30/5/2011 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

No new ideas
 Ghassan Khatib
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu speech delivered to the US Congress on May 24 held no new ideas or initiatives. Rather, it was a reiteration of the same well-known right-wing positions held by this Israeli government.

What really stood out for us in the Middle East, in fact, were not Netanyahu's words but the exceptionally enthusiastic reaction of the Congress, which gave him 29 standing ovations--high under any standards. President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech earlier this year received only 25 standing ovations. The question puzzling Palestinians was: what is the meaning of this unusual welcome? And what are the implications of this speech on future Palestinian-Israeli relations, including the peace process?

Importantly, Netanyahu's address came on the heels of two speeches by President Obama, both of them focusing on Israel-US relations and the American role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Indeed, President Obama, in his second speech, was forced to clarify his position calling for a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967 under open pressure from Netanyahu.

Different people focused on different aspects of Netanyahu's speech. What stood out for me, however, was his reference to the occupied territory of the West Bank as "Judea and Samaria". He said, "In Judea and Samaria, Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. We are not British in India. We are not Belgians in Congo. This is the land of our forefathers, the land of Israel."

Here, Netanyahu appears to be promoting the concept that historical Palestine, including the West Bank (in his words "Judea and Samaria"), belongs to Israel, but because non-Jews, i.e. Palestinians, happen to live there and because Israel wants to maintain a purely Jewish state, he will "agree" to assign parts of Judea and Samaria as an autonomous area for Palestinians. The size of this part will be determined by Israel in accordance with its security needs and might even be called a state. That, in Netanyahu's eyes, would be the implementation of the two-state solution.

Needless to say, Palestinians are coming from a completely different concept. Israel's presence in and control of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is illegal. The United Nations referred to it as an illegal, belligerent, military occupation that must come to an end along the 1967 borders in order to allow the Palestinian people to enjoy their basic right of self-determination through the establishment of an independent state.

Netanyahu's reference to the West Bank as "Judea and Samaria" and "the land of our forefathers" reminds Palestinians that all of historic Palestine was once their homeland, where they lived as a majority for millennia until the last 63 years. The kind of rhetoric that we heard from Netanyahu, backed by the Congress, only reinforces the call of Palestinians, most of whom are refugees, to regain their right to return to their homeland. Netanyahu's references are completely incompatible with the two-state solution derived from and based on international legality, which sees the 1967 borders as the borders of Israel and the future Palestinian state. Either both parties allow each other to base their vision of the solution on historical and religious considerations (where both sides can argue their connection to historical Palestine) or both parties must agree to compromise their respective rights on the basis of international references.

Israel cannot continue having its cake and eating it, too. Nor can it continue to be selective in how it argues for its needs. The weight of history and religion can either be guaranteed to both sides or compromised by both.

In conclusion, the only way Palestinians were able to explain the unusual reaction of the US Congress is the representatives' need for money and votes from the US Jewish community in the coming elections. Netanyahu's speech confirmed our fears that the politics and ideology of this Israeli government and prime minister are not compatible with that of the international community, international legality and the agreed-upon terms of reference of the peace process, including the roadmap issued by the Quartet and adopted by the UN Security Council.

Thus, Palestinians have no choice but to ask for a paradigm shift in handling the conflict, moving from the bilateral approach that Israel is abusing to a multilateral one in the United Nations. -Published 30/5/2011 ©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

At the heart of the Israeli consensus
 Efraim Inbar
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu went to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama, speak at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual gathering and address the US Congress. This visit seems to be of great political importance.

Prior to the visit, Netanyahu addressed the Knesset, where he conveyed a centrist position. He insisted on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish national state, on solving the Palestinian refugee problem outside of Israel, on defensible borders and on keeping Jerusalem united as Israel's capital; he also demanded the incorporation of the settlement blocs into Israel. This last element, new to Netanyahu's rhetoric, drew criticism from the Israeli far right as well as from some Likud members, as it indicates a willingness to withdraw from parts of Judea and Samaria.

After positioning himself at the heart of the Israeli consensus and securing the backing of his people, Netanyahu went to Washington, a trip that culminated with his address on Capitol Hill. There, he further clarified his position favoring a territorial compromise with the Palestinians, saying that "some settlements will end up beyond Israel's border." Netanyahu received enthusiastic applause for his oratory skills and his emphasis on the common values and bonds binding America and Israel. Moreover, the substantive positions espoused by the prime minister were well received in Washington. Even Obama felt the need to clarify in his AIPAC address that his advocacy of a settlement based on the 1967 borders must reflect demographic realities on the ground.

What transpired from this visit is that Washington, even if it disagrees with some aspects of Israeli policy, will stand firmly with Jerusalem. The United States clearly favors a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian settlement and opposes Palestinian attempts to achieve statehood via the United Nations General Assembly while not actually ending the conflict. More so, Obama's remarks reflected Israel's demand to be recognized as a Jewish state and its insistence on a demilitarized Palestinian state. As well, Netanyahu did not refrain from publicly disagreeing with Obama on the territorial contours of a future settlement, signaling to the White House that Israel will resist American pressures and is ready for a political battle.

The courage displayed by Israel's prime minister has earned him praise abroad and at home. Netanyahu's coalition government remains strong and stable despite its willingness to make territorial concessions, and his mainstream message makes him much more popular than before with the Israeli public. He can definitely discard the opinion of the vocal but politically discredited so-called "peace camp". Most Israelis have acknowledged that the Palestinians are not a true partner for peace negotiations and believe that Netanyahu is sincerely trying to advance the goal of peace in the region.

Nowadays, Israeli society seems more united than ever on many issues, such as a market-oriented economy, the elimination of ethnic (Ashkenazi-Sephardic) inequalities, and the approach to the protracted conflict with the Arabs. This growing social cohesion and optimism about the future, concomitant with the realization that peace is not around the corner, strengthens Israel as a society ready to wage war, if necessary, in order to survive in an increasingly tough neighborhood. Netanyahu's performance in Washington reinforced this reality.

Another important achievement of Netanyahu's US visit is that it has sent out a new message to the world, and specifically to the Palestinians, that their expectations about the shape of a future agreement must be calibrated in accordance with the wishes of the Israeli electorate. More realism has to be infused into their thinking. Netanyahu made clear that the oft-used phrase in diplomatic corridors--"we all know what the settlement will look like"--requires redefinition. The over-generous plans devised by former Israeli premiers such as Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, which were rejected by the Palestinians, are not relevant anymore. Similarly, the "Clinton parameters", which were also rejected by the Palestinians, were never acceptable to the Israeli majority and continue to be seen as suicidal for the Jewish state.

In large part, the US has come to terms with and supports Israel's position. It remains to be seen, however, how the rest of the civilized world will digest the clear Israeli message. There are great reservoirs of support in the West for the embattled western bastion, Israel. While the Palestinians have always had the automatic support of third-world tyrannies in international forums, they have also made important inroads into western public opinion. Still, it is unclear if western governments will support a PLO-Hamas alliance--the most recent development in Palestinian politics.

Netanyahu's diplomatic tour de force will hardly affect the chances for a peace agreement because Palestinian society is moving in the wrong direction. The incorporation of Hamas into a new Palestinian government is only one indication of the growing radicalization in that society. Unfortunately, the Palestinian media and education system perpetuate a culture of hate and death, and have hardly prepared the people for political pragmatism and coexistence alongside a legitimate Jewish state. This unwillingness to accept the existence of a Jewish state, as Netanyahu stressed, has been the main obstacle to peace over the past 100 years.-Published 30/5/2011

Efraim Inbar is professor of political studies and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

Despite the bluster, on to September
 Nabeel Kassis
In the week since Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of the United States Congress on May 24, little has been left unsaid on his speech--not so much in terms of analysis, for there wasn't much to analyze in a polemic that was replete with mendacious claims and racist remarks, but in terms of disapproval and dismay at the crass content of the speech, the way it was received by the Congress, and what that means for the prospects of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

Although Netanyahu only reaffirmed a well-known hard-line position, his speech was all the more shocking in that he blocked any "movement forward", slammed shut the door to negotiations, locked it (with preconditions that he knows very well cannot be accepted by Palestinians), and threw away the key at a time when US President Barack Obama had just asserted that "the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever."

Netanyahu reacted to Obama's assertion by showing beyond the shadow of a doubt that there is no basis for a negotiated settlement with a government of Israel under his leadership. What is most ominous is that this irresponsible, if ideological, stand by the Israeli prime minister was received with a such a show of support and encouragement from the American people's representatives at a time when the intransigent right in Israel is becoming increasingly confident (or foolish, for that matter), dominating the political scene, and moving the country further away from democratic practices through discriminatory legislation--Netanyahu's claims concerning "the Arabs in Israel" notwithstanding.

As for the Palestinians, they had no illusions before the spate of speeches and statements in Washington and Europe last week and will most probably carry on with their preparations for September. They have no other immediate choice. Of course, from a Palestinian point of view, what Netanyahu did was only made possible by Obama's weak stand on a matter that has long been claimed by US foreign policymakers to be of vital national interest, namely peace in the Middle East. Obama's otherwise welcome statement that the US stands "squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights" does not stand the litmus test of credibility, i.e. applicability to the Palestinian case. The US president made sure elsewhere in his speech that he does not consider Palestinians a people with innate and inalienable rights for which they have been reaching for decades. On the contrary, he was adamant in denying them the opportunity to go to the United Nations, where they can make their case when nothing else on the diplomatic front has worked.

Obama shrank from his responsibility, as the leader of the mightiest nation on earth, to ensure that the rights of the Palestinians as a people, and as the most oppressed people in the region, are safeguarded. He left the resolution of the strife between them and the occupiers of their land to the "parties", in complete disregard for the principles of fairness when there is such an imbalance of power between the two "parties". Indeed, he went even further, pledging to maintain this imbalance. The Palestinians are left with no immediate option other than to continue their preparations for September and the UN. In this sense, Netanyahu's speech was good for the Palestinians.

For rational Israelis, the whole episode must have been embarrassing and alarming. Nutty friends offering blind support can debauch a good cause. Not that Netanyahu had one. But there are Israelis who support the cause of peace and who believe in a secure and better future for all in a changing region. During the past week, many such Israelis made themselves heard. Of course, some of the criticism was voiced because the speech was seen as ultimately good for the Palestinians and that it contributes to isolating Israel. To an Israeli who supports Netanyahu's position, one can only say: "Suit yourself."

As for the Americans, it is not clear how many of them were offended to see the prime minister of a foreign country deliver a rebuttal of their elected president before their elected representatives and receive a standing ovation, or how many will be comparing the joint session in the Capitol with that in Westminster Hall a few days later. What is needed in Capitol Hill is not only more decorum, but more awareness of the responsibility that the US shoulders in dealing fairly with issues that it can influence.-Published 30/5/2011 ©

Nabeel Kassis is an academic who served as a minister in the Palestinian government and was a negotiator at the Madrid and Washington peace talks.