In an unscripted response to left-wing MKs on Tuesday in the Knesset plenum, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered a glimpse of his views on the challenges of peacemaking.
The key challenge, in a word: Iran.
“Iran is a large empire,” Netanyahu explained to MKs assembled in the plenum for the Knesset’s 40-year commemoration of the Yom Kippur War. “Its offshoots are arrayed throughout the Middle East. It sends them against us. It is in de facto control of Syria, it controls Lebanon, it controls half the Palestinians through Hamas.”
Iran’s leaders “have no interest in compromise or an agreement,” Netanyahu added. “They have the power to control any territory we withdraw from. Their goal is to remove us from here. That’s their publicly stated agenda.”
When Israel “withdrew from Gaza, they took over. When we withdrew from Lebanon, they took over. They don’t want peace. They’re the dominant power” in the region.
The consequences of Iranian expansionism for peace are profound, he said.
“We can’t say that we will make an agreement alone, or that we’ll have an agreement” with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu said.
“Iranian nuclear weapons will threaten the existing peace treaties with our neighbors and [any] peace [achieved] with the half of the Palestinian people who are led by a government that is not calling for our destruction.”
Turning to left-wing MKs in the plenum who asked him to demonstrate a willingness to reach peace with the Palestinians – including Meretz chair MK Zahava Gal-on who complained that he had relegated the Palestinian question to a footnote in recent Knesset speeches – Netanyahu linked the peace talks with the Iranian threat.
“Who among us doesn’t want peace?” he said. “But we want a real, sustainable peace, not a temporary one. This peace will have to take into account the real forces that surround us: Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, [Islamic] Jihad, Al-Qaeda.”
That constellation of threats on Israel’s borders means “the old model” of peace treaties with sovereign states “no longer exists,” Netanyahu explained. “Those who understand this better than anyone are the majority of our Arab neighbors,” he added. “They are not stuck in the conception” that peace is simply a matter of negotiations. “They want us to reach peace with Abu Mazen [Abbas], but they don’t believe for a second that it will bring peace to the Middle East.”
That’s why security is an essential aspect of a viable peace agreement, he argued.
“If we don’t secure the areas from which we [plan to] withdraw, there won’t be peace. There might be peace on the White House lawn or peace in ceremonies in Oslo, but not here. I want peace that will be sustainable, so I’m demanding the things that a changing reality demands. This might be a cold peace, and maybe it will grow warmer later, but if we don’t deal with the forces that surround us” when we come to make peace, there won’t be a peace, Netanyahu concluded.
Netanyahu also challenged some left-wing MKs’ assertions that he alone had the power to deliver a peace agreement.
“You say it depends on me, that we promised peace [but are not delivering it],” he began. “But you also need the other side. There was a Sadat for Begin, a King Hussein for Rabin. It doesn’t only depend on the Israeli side, just like it didn’t depend solely on the five prime ministers who preceded me since the start of the Oslo process.”
Even so, he concluded, “we will not miss the opportunity for peace with a partner who truly wants it.”
In a likely reference to Israeli demands that Israel maintain a buffer zone in the Jordan Valley, Netanyahu said Israeli negotiators “will have to convince the Palestinians to adjust their demands to the circumstances around us.”
With all those caveats, he ended with a promise: “I won’t miss this opportunity.”