BICOM Briefing: Content and implications of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech

Key Points

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu focused the central message of his speech on the deep-rooted cultural and historical commitment to peace of the Israeli people and himself personally.
  • However, he highlighted the recent history of Israel giving up land without receiving peace in return, to stress that Israel needs security guarantees in advance for a future peace deal with the Palestinians. So whilst making a historic acceptance of a Palestinian state, he made a clear caveat of it being demilitarised.
  • Netanyahu reiterated the importance of Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, based on his assertion that the root of the conflict is the unwillingness of Israel’s neighbours to accept the Jewish right to a homeland in Israel.
  • The prime minister asserted that there would be no new settlements or land for existing settlements, but defended the rights of settlers to live normal lives.
  • He made clear his readiness meet with Arab leaders ‘at any time’ and that he is ‘willing to go to Damascus, to Riyadh, to Beirut, to any place – including Jerusalem,’ conspicuously including Damascus at the top of the list.

What Netanyahu said

The central and overarching message of PM Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan University speech on Sunday evening was that the State of Israel, and he personally as prime minister, believes passionately and wholeheartedly in a vision of peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the broader Arab world, which is deeply rooted in Jewish culture and belief. To this end, he made a dramatic shift in his personal position, and endorsed publicly for the first time the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as part of a future solution to the conflict.

Though this speech was given in Hebrew to an Israeli audience, it was clearly also meant for the attention of the international community. Whilst Netanyahu firmly reiterated his concerns regarding Iran, asserting his belief that the ‘nexus of radical Islam and nuclear weapons’ is the greatest threat not only to Israel  but the entire world, he focused his speech squarely on the issue of the peace process with the Palestinians and the broader Arab world.

Reiterating a previously stated desire to ‘widen the circle of peace,’ he addressed the leaders of the Arab world directly and declared, ‘Let us meet. Let us speak of peace and let us make peace. I am ready to meet with you at any time.  I am willing to go to Damascus, to Riyadh, to Beirut, to any place – including Jerusalem.’ Including Damascus at the top of the list was conspicuous, and the mention to Jerusalem a clear reference to the historic visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in 1977, which paved the way for the Egypt-Israel peace accord.

A near utopian passage about regional economic cooperation between Israel and the Arab world, in which he praised the entrepreneurship of the Gulf states, sounded more typical of the speeches of Israel’s dovish President Shimon Peres, for so many years Netanyahu’s bitter political rival.

Netanyahu directly addressed the moderate Palestinian leadership of the Palestinian Authority, and restated his call for immediate peace talks without preconditions, reiterating Israel’s commitment to previous agreements. Referring to his personal experiences of battle, and his personal loss of friends and his brother in conflict, he stressed his desire to see an end to war and the shared benefits of peace.

Consciously echoing the language of President Barack Obama in his recent Cairo speech, he talked of the need to speak honestly about the conflict. In seeking to explain why peace had not been possible until now, he argued that the key barrier to peace from the days of the British Mandate to today has been ‘the refusal to recognise the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own, in their historic homeland.’  This refusal to recognise Israel, he argued, predates the Jewish presence in the West Bank and Gaza. He accused the Palestinians of pulling away every time Israel has made peace offers in the past. He gave the situation in Gaza as an example in which Israel withdrew from territory and was showered with rockets in response.

He set out the conditions Israel would demand in any final status accord. He repeatedly emphasised that the Palestinians must recognise Israel as a national state of the Jewish people, and he firmly restated Israel’s consensus position that the Palestinian refugee problem cannot be solved within Israel. He devoted a lengthy portion of the speech to presenting the Jewish narrative in the conflict. In a conscious response to Obama’s Cairo speech, Netanyahu rejected the notion that Israel’s right to exist was premised on the Holocaust, and asserted the Jewish right to a stake in the land of Israel based on the 3,500-year-old Jewish connection to that land. ‘The places where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, David and Solomon, and Isaiah and Jeremiah lived,’ he said, ‘are not alien to us.  This is the land of our forefathers.’

At the same time, he acknowledged that the Palestinian people also have rights, and that it is not Israel’s desire to rule over them. In this context he declared, ‘If we receive this guarantee regarding demilitarisation and Israel’s security needs, and if the Palestinians recognise Israel as the State of the Jewish people, then we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarised Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.’

With regard to issues that need to be discussed in final status talks, he went into few details. He said that Israel must have defensible borders. He also said that no new settlements would be built and no new land claimed for settlements, but he defended the right of existing settlements to live normally – implicitly resisting the US’s call for a freeze on ‘natural growth’ within existing settlements. He restated his position that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel, open to freedom of worship for all.

He stressed the importance of unity in Israel, in a message directed internally both to centrist Kadima party opposition leader Tzipi Livni, and the right wing of his own party and his coalition. The message about the need to maintain Israeli unity behind any peace process will also have been meant for Obama’s ears.

He called for economic peace as a complement to political peace, which would help strengthen moderates and weaken extremists. He called for the Palestinians to tackle terrorism and incitement, in return for which Israel would facilitate freedom of movement and access. He called for the PA to overcome Hamas rule in Gaza, and declared that ‘Israel will not sit at the negotiating table with terrorists who seek their destruction.’ In referring to Hamas, he also took the opportunity to condemn them for not even allowing Red Cross access to kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

The political implications

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s acceptance of a Palestinian state is a major step forward, offering a political horizon for the peace process with the Palestinians which is far clearer than before. Though already as prime minister he has called for immediate final status negotiations and has stated that the Palestinians should have every power to rule themselves short of those that endanger Israel, there is a considerable symbolic importance to speaking explicitly about Palestinian statehood.

The two-state solution and the idea of ceding sovereignty over the West Bank has for some time been a wedge issue dividing the Left and Right in Israel. Netanyahu, as the leader of the more right-wing Zionist camp, has in the past avoided committing to the idea of a Palestinian state and instead resorted to semantic discussions about the nature of statehood. He said at the White House that the Palestinians should be able to ‘govern themselves, absent a handful of powers that could endanger the state of Israel,’ and that a substantive understanding was more important than terminology. But in this speech he bridged the gap, and made explicit his acceptance of Palestinian statehood as the basis of an agreement. The technical security issues are of course only one part of the issue. There is traditionally a deeply ideological objection on the Israeli Right and among the national religious camp to ceding sovereignty of the West Bank, which is the core of the Jewish historical homeland and steeped in Jewish culture and heritage.

Therefore, accepting the idea of a Palestinian state is a major political gesture which will dismay some of Netanyahu’s right-wing supporters, but in laying out a position that accepts Palestinian statehood with certain conditions, he has adopted a position which has broad consensus support in Israel. The principle of demilitarisation is not a new condition that is being imposed, but has been an Israeli demand accepted under the Clinton proposals in 2000 and as part of the unofficial Geneva Accords. Netanyahu’s insistence on Israel’s recognition as a Jewish nation-state is also not new, and is a logical element of a two-state solution. One of its implications, that Israel will not be open to Palestinian refugees, is also a basic red line for any future peace deal and has been accepted by Palestinian moderates in the past. 

Whilst the language about a Palestinian state was clearly new and significant, Netanyahu’s position on settlements showed little change. But whilst he did not accept the US’s demand for a complete settlement freeze, he also said little to place new barriers between the US and Israel on the issue. He has accepted in the past the need to deal with outposts, and he accepted in this speech that there would be no new settlements and no expansion of existing settlements. Beyond that, the reality of implementing a ‘settlement freeze’ comes down to details, and where one draws the line. Does the US administration expect no new building projects to be allowed within existing settlement blocs, or do they expect workmen to lay down tools on half-built houses that families have already paid for? Negotiations between Israel and the US will continue on this issue.  Significantly, the prime minister’s spokesman, Mark Regev, clarified in an interview immediately after the speech that the existing settlements were open for negotiation as part of final status talks, and highlighted the fact that Israel had removed settlements in the past in the cause of peace.

On the question of Jerusalem, Netanyahu’s position sounded uncompromising. But it was significant that he did not put the same emphasis on the question of Jerusalem as he did on the issue of a Palestinian state being demilitarised or the need for the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, placing this issue under the category of ‘issues that will be discussed as part of the final settlement.’

What follows from this speech

In the immediate aftermath of the speech there will be a communications battle to interpret it. Israel will be pleased that the US has already issued a statement welcoming it, but they will watch intently for reactions from the Palestinians and the Arab world. The US, led by envoy George Mitchell, has shown enthusiasm to get back to direct talks between the two sides, and it will surely be difficult for the Palestinians to resist this. Now that there is agreement from this Israeli government on the political horizon of a Palestinian state, and with something substantive to talk about, the real challenges will begin. More dovish Israeli governments have not, in the past, been able to close the gaps with the Palestinians on final status issues, and now the Palestinians face the deep complications of their internal divisions. Continued intensive US engagement and ingenuity will be required to devise a negotiation process which builds on Netanyahu’s step forward. As has already been made clear by President Obama, the involvement of the wider Arab world in supporting moderate Palestinians and offering concessions to Israel will be a key part of the process going forward.

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