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Netanyahu Speech Aimed to Ease U.S. Relations, Unlikely to Assuage Palestinians

Interviewee: Aaron David Miller, Public Policy Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 15, 2009

Aaron David Miller, a former senior U.S. negotiator in the Mideast, says Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's closely watched speech on June 14 "was less about pursuing Arab-Israeli peace and much more about pursuing the U.S.-Israeli relationship." Miller said Netanyahu's first-ever reference to a "Palestinian state," with conditions, was meant to assuage U.S. President Barack Obama, after new U.S. pressure on halting Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Miller says the Obama administration now faces the daunting task of coming up with a strategy for how to bring about "meaningful negotiations between an empowered Israeli government and an empowered Palestinian national authority."  Miller cited the tough issues obstructing such talks, including the status of Jerusalem, borders, security, and refugees. "The positions of the current Israeli government and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who represents half of the Palestinian national movement, are fundamentally divergent," he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's long-awaited policy speech on the Middle East did include the magic words "Palestinian state." But on other issues, his words did not seem that much in sync with American policy. How did you evaluate the speech?

The prime minister's speech was less about pursuing Arab-Israeli peace and much more about pursuing the U.S.-Israeli relationship. It's part of a tick-tock in an ongoing test of wills between President Obama, "Mr. Yes We Can," and the prime minister, "Mr. No You Won't." It was designed to pacify the prime minister's domestic constituency by not going too far on one hand, but also giving Obama something that can get the U.S.-Israeli relationship right and help him in his efforts to leverage the Arabs to produce something.

And he did that how? By referencing a Palestinian state?

The reference was to a demilitarized Palestinian state, which for Netanyahu may be an ideological journey. It's certainly not for the members of the Likud, at least not former members: Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Avigdor Lieberman. All of them had come to terms that the least-worst solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a two-state solution. That's what was new in the speech. Otherwise the speech, by Netanyahu's own admission, was an effort to secure an Israeli narrative: a struggle against implacable enemies such as Iran. In the speech, Netanyahu used the word "peace" more than he did any other single word. That's part of the prime minister's logic. But certainly it won't be enough to attract Palestinians or the Arab states. They've already rejected it out of hand. The question--and I think this is a very interesting point--is what is the Obama administration really looking for?

Clearly it has reacted very positively to the speech. It may well believe that it has secured something important from the prime minister. It got very little on the issue of settlements. If they are to get something, it'll come from very quiet, discreet discussions by Israeli and American negotiating teams in an effort to create some formula that at least talks about a settlement freeze, but doesn't necessarily call it that. Whether or not that's possible is hard to say right now. My issue with all of this is that the administration needs a strategy. It needs a strategy to get from where we are to get, presumably, where it needs to go with meaningful negotiations between an empowered Israeli government and an empowered Palestinian national authority.

It seems to me that the odds of getting there and making progress are really quite remote. In the end, as it hurries to get into these negotiations, it's going to find itself slamming into a brick wall on issues such as Jerusalem, borders, security, refugees, and other core issues that drive the conflict. The positions of the current Israeli government and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who represents half of the Palestinian national movement, are fundamentally divergent. I'm at a loss to understand, in a very respectful way because I don't have a strategy, what the administration is trying to do.

The impression is created, and [President Obama's] Cairo speech adds to this, that the administration is really interested in bringing about a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli disputes. But in Netanyahu's speech, there were several red lights for the Arab side. He said he wanted unconditional peace talks, but he gave a whole slew of pre-conditions.

I don't doubt the administration's commitment and determination. They've done some very consequential things. They appointed a top-flight negotiator, they've changed the frame of reference here from the previous administration, which didn't do much until it was too late. It's an administration that seems to care a great deal. They have tried to create an honest process by telling the Arabs what they have to do, like stopping the anti-Semitism and reach out to Israel, and they've told the Israelis to stop the settlement activity. The challenge in all of this is how to turn all of this into a strategy that would allow the president to make progress towards a conflict-ending agreement.

The logic seems to be that we'll get something from Israel, then we'll use this leverage to get something out of the Arabs. Then we'll use both of these things to leverage some sort of regional peace conference that will have Israel and the Arab states talking; and if necessary, Barack Obama will try to bridge these gaps on Jerusalem, border security, and refugees. That appears to me to be the general approach. The odds of delivering on that, however, given where Netanyahu and Abbas are, seem to be very long. The recent events in Tehran have not turned out the way some in the administration had hoped it would. So you are going to get a much more urgent push on the nuclear issue. The Israelis, with [Iran's] President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the poster-child of intolerance who has essentially stolen the election, has to deal with a regime that may or may not have a gravitational center on this issue. Given the domestic constraints, depending on what happens with protests and continuing violence, Iran is going to adopt a very tough line in any event, which is not going to make Israelis any more reasonable or malleable on Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Events in Tehran and Jerusalem over the weekend have really driven home a pretty sobering message that all tribes, when they get pushed, act very tough. I'm not comparing Netanyahu and Ahmadinejad at all, but the reality is that this is going to be an uphill battle from here on out.

I guess he can't do anything with his political base at home, barring some major concessions from the Arab side, which doesn't seem likely, right?

I think that's right. Even if you brought Tzipi Livni [former Kadima Party foreign minister] into the coalition and dropped [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman--presumably you'd have Ehud Barak, Livni, and Netanyahu--I don't think the Israeli government has yet determined what price it's prepared to pay on the four core issues. Clearly on territory, there's a narrowing of the gap, but on Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, and what constitutes security needs and requirements and how to reconcile those with any meaningful recognition of Palestinian sovereignty, it's hard to see how these gaps can be bridged. Of course on the other side, you have the Palestinian humpty dumpty with Abbas and Hamas sharing control over Palestine's people and funds and the question of who really represents the majority of Palestinians. The speech was an ever-present reminder of how tough it's going to be to push the rock up the hill.

One historical question: why have the Israelis recently been so adamant about the Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish state? To an American it seems like it's a given, but to Palestinians--and in particular those living in Israel--it's unacceptable. When did this issue arise?

I believe that this comes from a deep-seated Israeli perception that Palestinian nationalism has remained by and large, since its inception, implacably hostile to the right of Israel as a Jewish state to exist within its borders. It seems incredibly reasonable to Israelis to ask that if we recognize Palestine as a Palestinian state, why can't they understand that we need to be recognized as a Jewish state? This would put aside, once and for all, any doubts in the minds of Israelis that the Palestinians and Arabs are pursuing a phased struggle. The emblematic issue of that is the refugee issue, in which Israelis see a refusal on the part of the Palestinians to concede the unrestricted right of return [of Palestinians to land they left in 1948-49] as the fundamental acknowledgement that the Palestinians have really never accepted the idea of a Jewish state.

If you look at the peace treaties between Israel and Jordan, you won't find any recognition or acknowledgement of Israel as a Jewish state. The Israelis would argue that that's because we're not dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the division of historic Palestine. In the end, I don't believe this is a tactic but rather a conflict-ending solution if one can ever be achieved. There will have to be recognition on this point on the part of the Palestinian national movement. I don't think you're going to be able to get to the end of the road without it. The Obama administration is quite appropriately not addressing the issue as a formal condition. [U.S. envoy]George Mitchell, the other day, went out of his way to refer to Israel as a Jewish state. That's the administration's way of assuaging Israeli fears and concerns without allowing the Israelis to say to the Americans "look, you need to impose this condition as well on the Palestinians." The administration should not do that, and I suspect will not. They have enough trouble as it is right now.

So what happens next?

The administration is way out on a limb on the issue of a comprehensive settlement freeze including a ban on "natural growth." They've said repeatedly, although I haven't heard it lately, that they don't accept the legitimacy of settlements. Unless they're prepared to ratchet up the pressure, we're headed toward some sort of arrangement worked out privately and discreetly between the two sides that would essentially codify some sort of understanding. Otherwise, if the administration is prepared to stick to its guns on this one, we're about to enter a very unhappy phase of U.S.-Israeli relations. And I must say that fighting with the Israelis is an occupational necessity when it comes to serious peacemaking: [former Secretary of State Henry A.] Kissinger fought with them, [former President Jimmy] Carter fought with them, [former Secretary of State James A.] Baker fought with them, and they all succeeded.

To bring about pressure in an effort to bring about a significant breakthrough that makes the president look good, that advances American national interests, and that also advances Israeli and Arab/Palestinian [interests], is worth the fight. It's not worth the fight if months and months before any conceivable breakthrough we end up getting into a huge fight with the Israelis on an issue that is unwinnable. Fighting over settlements when issues that you're going to have to push them on like Jerusalem, borders, security are still to be tackled is the fundamental problem. There are 300,000 Israelis in the West Bank. If any Israeli prime minister fights it, then he's going to have to fight it with the cooperation of the United States. He cannot fight the settlers on one hand and be fighting with the United States on the other hand.

I just assume that in any agreement, the Palestinians would agree that the major settlements would remain in return for Israeli land. Is that not the case?

Yes, but the size of the blocs are by no means agreed between this Israeli government and this American administration. Olmert and Abbas came to some understanding on territory, which got the percentages of what the Israelis would require to give up to be quite reasonable. The Palestinians would be compensated presumably on a one-to-one swap from real estate or other symbols of territory of equal size and value. I don't know what the current Israeli government's view of the blocs are. The notion that the Israelis can build in the blocs, even though the Israelis have not yet identified what the size of the blocs are, is a trap for the [Obama] administration. If there's going to be some sort of deal on settlements, they're going to have to work that one through.

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