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Bibi Speaks

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
June 14, 2009
Weekly Standard


In Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech today he took one major step toward the Obama administration, by endorsing a Palestinian state. In every other way, he resisted President Obama's pressure.

First, he refused a "settlement freeze" and President Obama's insistence that Israel "stop settlements" (whatever that means) and instead stuck with the Bush-Sharon bargain on settlements. He referred to two aspects of that bargain (no new settlements and no confiscation of land in the West Bank for settlements), but it can be assumed that he'll stick as well to the other two parts of the deal (no financial incentives for settlers, and construction only in already built-up areas). He specifically referred to the need for settlers to lead normal lives in their communities, which can only mean that some construction will be permitted.

Second, he rejected the Obama narrative in Cairo, which held that Israel was established as a reaction to the Holocaust. Netanyahu carefully noted that land of Israel (including the West Bank) was the homeland of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that Zionists had dreamed of and worked for a state there long before the Second World War.

Third, in another rejection of the Obama narrative, he asserted that Israel had always longed for peace but had been attacked--before, during and after its independence struggle--by the Arabs. There is no peace, he said, because the Arab states and the Palestinians refuse to this day to accept Israel as a Jewish state.

Netanyahu did not embrace the Roadmap, for reasons that remain obscure. The Roadmap leads to a Palestinian state, but through stages (including an interim stage, a Palestinian state with provisional borders and "aspects" of "sovereignty") that require an end to terrorism and dismantling the terrorist groups. Given Hamas's current strength, it would seem that the Roadmap fits well with Netanyahu's insistence on a demilitarized Palestinian entity and on "security first." Moreover, had he embraced the Roadmap it might be easier for him to demand the benefits of the Sharon/Bush bargain on settlement activity, which was made in the context of the Roadmap.

Netanyahu's speech makes one wonder how his private conversations with George Mitchell went last week, and where Mitchell goes next. Obama and Mitchell have wanted Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab states all to make some gestures, but recent comments by Palestinian Authority President Abbas and the long history of Arab refusal to accept Israel had already made that a very long shot. On the other hand, Netanyahu's speech will not allow Israel to shift the blame for the Arab failure to act back onto the Arab states—at least not in the eyes of those (Obama, Clinton, Mitchell, and Jones, to take four random examples) who have already accepted the Palestinian version of events in the Middle East, where Israeli concessions are the road to peace.

So Mitchell can certainly convene Israeli-Palestinian talks, but they will go nowhere.

The Obama administration seems determined to repeat all the mistakes the Bush administration made, especially that of concentrating on fancy negotiations on final status issues while slighting the chances for real-world progress on the ground in the West Bank. So determined is our government to produce nirvana for Palestinians, it seems willing to ignore chances to bring them better lives now—something Netanyahu pledged to work with the U.S. on immediately. If the administration chooses to keep fighting almost entirely on the settlement "freeze" issue, it will be showing that a confrontation with Netanyahu is not a problem it seeks to avoid but a tactic it seeks to embrace. And once again, any chance of helping Palestinian moderates to deliver real improvements in Palestinian life will be lost.

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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