Thursday, June 11, 2009

More on Netanyahu's Speech

Nobody can be sure what Netanyahu will say in his upcoming foreign policy speech this coming Sunday. He's being sure to stay quite mum on the subject. That being said, there's a good amount of analysis, hypothesising and clues out there that a few possibilities are conceivable.

Netanyahu has quite a balancing act ahead of him with many constituencies to sate. He'll have to worry about protecting his coalition and his job, satisfying the US, sending a message to the rest of the world about what he wants for Israel and an Israeli populace who will all react to his speech differently. So, what will he say?

Some analysts argue that Netanyahu has no choice, he must cave in to the demands of the US. They argue that pressure from the US could be unbearable and that US political and financial support for Israel is not something that can be gambled with. As a result, Netanyahu will have no choice but to do as Obama asks: freeze the settlements and accept the idea of a Palestinian state. Others take the same position but nuance it slightly. This argument is that US pressure on Israel can be made unbearable and can include increased pressure from Europe and other parts of the world. If Netanyahu were to refuse to work with the US and Palestinians, it could find itself in a situation where it would be forced to accept terms that could endanger it. For example, the possibility of a hostile Palestinian state in the West Bank in a position to fire rockets at Ben Gurion Airport. This argument says that in order to head off the creation of a Palestinian state along lines that are not in Israeli interests, Netanyahu should perform an about face, recognize the Palestinian right to a state, but nuance it with the caveat that it must be de-militarized, and it must live alongside a secure, Jewish, Israel.

The opposite side of the coin takes the position that Netanyahu was voted in by a certain constituency and has no choice but to bend to their will and their will only. This is a rightist constituency which includes the settlers and those who simply do not wish to see or believe in the Palestinian right to their own state. This line of argumentation would conclude with Netanyahu making a speech that does not pander to the US or to opposition parties in Israel nor to its detractors anywhere else in the world. That Netanyahu should hold firm and speak according to his beliefs and the ideology of the Likud party.

Netanyahu faces some tough pressure from inside his own government to not accept the idea of "two states for two people." In consultations with members of his own Likud party, though Netanyahu would not divulge the content of his speech, he was urged by his fellow party and Knesset members not to "...found a Palestinian state at Bar-Ilan," the site of his speech. Instead, it was recommended to Netanyahu that he accept a Palestinian "entity:" something that can be defined and perhaps redefined as events warrant. At that same meeting, Netanyahu also said, significantly: "...we must act to ensure Israel's existence as a Jewish nation for generations upon generations to come. This is not only my responsibility but all of ours..." Some could argue that given the regional demographics, with Palestinians who claim refugee status soon to outnumber Israelis, the idea of Israel as a "Jewish nation" will soon be a demographic impossibility, short of a situation in which the minority rules over a majority of people with no vote: i.e. not the type of Israel its founders imagined. This may be code from Netanyahu to his fellow party members that they should prepare themselves for him to advocate a separate state for Palestinians, one where they could not politically, democratically and demographically threaten the Jewish character of Israel.

Some Likudniks, however, remain deeply suspicious of any kind of Palestinian state. Retorting that it's not two states the Palestinian's want, but rather two stages, one stage in which they achieve their own state, and a second in which they use that state as a base to attack Israel. The problem with this argument, however, presented by Likud Knesset member Begin, is that he provides no real alternative. His suggestions essentially amount to: 'Palestinians need to build institutions, educate their children not to hate, and combat terror.' While, yes, Palestinians must do all these things, it does not mean that most Palestinians will not accept their own, independent state and be content to finally have a sovereign homeland. Arguing in a similar vein, however, are Israeli Parliamentarians like Yaalon, who does not reject a two state solution, but also argues that first, Palestinians must begin building the 'infrastructure of peace.' Yaalon also worries that pulling out from the West Bank too swiftly would create fertile ground for the likes of Hamas to set up shop. All this reflects internal pressure on Netanyahu to not toe the US party line but rather, keep to his own.

According to some, however, the US has very low expectations for Netanyahu's speech. Officials who have met with him recently do not seem to be happy with what they heard. This could have a dual effect. For one, it strengthens the voices of those in Israel who would like to see Netanyahu not pander to the US but rather stick to his guns and on the other hand it could have the effect of shaming, or embarrassing Netanyahu, telling him in advance that his position is unacceptable and that he'd better shape up by game (speech) day or the US will get tough.

But wait! There's more to consider, many more factors that will be weighing upon Netanyahu.

Netanyahu could also be watching for signals from the Arab world, his neighbours, for clues as to what he could say that would allow them to work with Israel towards the goals outlined by Netanyahu--as opposed to being placed in a position where out of their natural loyalty to Palestinians, they must reject what Netanyahu proposes. It could be a strategically smart move for Netanyahu to speak in terms that his Arab neighbours can endorse thereby allowing them to nudge Palestinians towards the same goal.

For example, unconfirmed reports suggest that the Saudi King has asked the US to impose the Arab peace plan on Israel--a plan that, in a nutshell, offers Israel the recognition of all Arab states in exchange for a withdrawal to the 1967 borders and a right of return for Palestinians. What this report is really implying, however, is that Arab states are suggesting that if Israel does not want to offer some sort of counter proposal to the Arab peace plan, then the US should simply get tough on Israel and force it. This is yet another reason why, in order to encourage Arab buy-in to Netanyahu's leadership and to evade what could be enormous US pressure, Netanyahu should show some sort of willingness to at least enter into discussions along the lines of the Arab peace plan. This does not mean acceptance, this is not a "sell out." It's just an acknowledgement of this alternative and an open mind towards discussing how it would really work.

Netanyahu may now also be looking towards Jordan, a state that has recently made two statements (here and here) that its view is that only the two state solution can resolve the conflict in the region. Jordanian buy-in could be valuable to Netanyahu. As a state with its own large Palestinian population, a peace treaty with Israel and warm relations with the west, Jordan may be in a position to influence the Palestinians. Going further, they may be part of the solution, if for example, as a state bordering the West Bank they could offer certain trade, security or other incentives or assistance to a newly created Palestinian state. This is one more reason why Netanyahu may consider agreeing to a two state solution, deepening ties with Jordan.

An opposition member of the Israeli Knesset, Avi Dichter, makes a case for a regional approach to peace that would have more success than a bilateral one, one between just Israel and the Palestinians. He argues that the bilateral Oslo approach failed and in some cases achieved opposite results than those intended. The solution, he suggests, may be to work regionally and ensure that the whole neighbourhood helps in not only putting out the fire in the western part of the neighborhood, but also in keeping the Iranian bully in the east at bay. To do this, he says, the two state solution will have to be the answer, only, it will be achieved multilaterally.

One stumbling block from the Arab world, however, may be recent statements from Hamas that freezing settlements "...is not the price we are after ... Although it's an essential step." In other words, Hamas's stated goal is the elimination of Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but in Israel proper as well. Settlement freezing is a step along this road. This is language that is bound to make Israelis suspicious of calls to stop settlement activity and could feed into the type of argument espoused by Begin and those in his camp trying to influence Netanyahu. Israelis may also be right to be suspicious...how could what is good for my enemy, also be good for me, especially when my enemy sees our dispute as a zero-sum game? The answer is, it's not. An analysis of this situation though would lead to the conclusion that this is all the more reason to ensure that whatever Netanyahu says he keeps Jordan, Egypt, other Arab states and the US onside against Hamas. Their approach is clear, destroy Israel. Israel, however, will not destroy Hamas, at least not alone, and for sure not while Iran, Hamas's patron, remains unchecked.

The weight of indicators suggests that Netanyahu will support the creation of a Palestinian state in his speech, but to walk the tightrope that he must traverse, he will probably refuse a complete freeze on settlement activity as much out of a bid for his political life as for his ideology. The defense minister and Labour party head Barak has spoken of surprises from Netanyahu, and he's spoken in an optimistic tone, suggesting that perhaps Netanyhu has surprises that will make the large segment of the Israeli population that voted for Labour and Kadima happy that peace will be pursued by the man they suspected would scuttle it.

On the other hand, Netanyahu's office is suggesting that most of what people are saying about the upcoming speech is way off base. So, perhaps the only person who's correct is Barak: we will be surprised by Netanyahu.

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