When Dani Dayan, the international spokesman of the settler movement, really likes a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, you know that something curious is going on. Dayan is hell-bent on preventing a Palestinian state while Netanyahu says he’s fully committed to a two-state solution. But moments after Netanyahu concluded a major foreign policy address Sunday evening, Dayan tweeted: “Probably the best speech by Netanyahu as PM.”
Netanyahu’s unusually fiery speech, packed with history lessons that incriminated Palestinian leaders past and present, signaled a significant shift to the right. Hence Dayan’s delight. But it would be a mistake to understand the pugnacious rhetoric as a significant departure from his declared policies, as some analysts are doing.
The prime minister was still at the podium — he opened a conference at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies — when the first pundits weighed in, saying that Netanyahu’s Sunday speech “wipes out” his original Bar-Ilan address. In June 2009, from the same podium, Netanyahu had for the first time accepted in principle a Palestinian state. “He more or less walked back the first Bar-Ilan speech tonight,” Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid opined.
There is a lot one can read into “Bar-Ilan 2,” but a fundamental shift in policy it was not.
In “Bar Ilan 1,” after all, Netanyahu had already cited the recognition of Israel’s Jewish roots as one of the core conditions for his approval of a Palestinian state. “Even the moderates among the Palestinians are not ready to say the simplest things: The State of Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish People and will remain so,” he said four years ago. “The fundamental condition for ending the conflict is the public, binding and sincere Palestinian recognition of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish People.”
True, since June 14, 2009, Netanyahu has sometimes placed more stress on the security aspects of a future agreement with the Palestinians, but he never abandoned or even softened his demand for recognition of Jewish Israel. In his speech last Tuesday at the United Nations, the prime minister said very little about the Palestinian conflict, but that little included a passage in which he slammed the Palestinian leadership for being unwilling to “to offer the painful concessions they must make in order to end the conflict. For peace to be achieved, the Palestinians must finally recognize the Jewish state, and Israel’s security needs must be met.”
In Bar-Ilan 2, Netanyahu focused on history, positing that the Jewish-Arab conflict began not in 1967 with the Six-Day War capture of the territories, but in 1921, when Palestinians attacked Jewish immigrants in Jaffa. He went even further back, talking at length about how the mufti of Jerusalem cooperated with the Nazis in the 1940s. He even made a not-so-subtle suggestion that the mufti was partially responsible for the extermination of European Jewry.
And today, “the Palestinians must abandon their refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to have their national state,” Netanyahu said firmly, reiterating this demand several times, firmly placing it at the heart of the current peace negotiations.
Yes, it has been a while since we heard Netanyahu come out so aggressively against the Palestinians. Last week at the White House, with President Barack Obama at his side, he merely said that “for peace to endure, it must be based on Israel’s capacity to defend itself, by itself,” without mentioning recognition. (Obama supports the requirement; “Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state,” the visiting president said in March in Jerusalem.)
But Netanyahu’s speech Sunday did not mean to lay out new policies, neither toward the Ramallah nor toward Tehran. His demand of the Iranians — an end to all enrichment activity — repeated a position he has stated dozens of times, including at the UN last week, and again Sunday morning before the weekly cabinet meeting.
Why the sudden belligerence? Several reasons. First of all, Netanyahu just returned from a busy week in the States. The anti-Iran rhetoric at the UN and the subsequent interview marathon were the easy part, but little attention has been paid to what he and Obama discussed concerning the Palestinian issue. (Obama recently announced that Washington’s foreign policy efforts will primarily “focus on two particular issues: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.”)
In his public remarks, the president said Monday that both Israelis and Palestinians have been engaging in “serious conversations,” yet warned that “we have a limited amount of time to achieve” a peace agreement. While officials in the Prime Minister’s Office say the meeting with Obama focused on the Iranian threat, well-informed sources have it that the president devoted at least half the time to the Palestinian issue, pressuring the Israeli leader to speed things up.
The peace talks aren’t going well, and Obama — who had met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas just before seeing Netanyahu — reportedly told the prime minister to get with the program and start negotiating in earnest. The Palestinians complain about the slow pace of meetings and Israel’s refusal to make concrete proposals on a future map. Evidently the prime minister felt compelled to strike back Sunday night: It’s not Israel’s fault the talks are stuttering; it’s that Palestinian refusal to recognize the Jewish people’s right to be sovereign in their ancient homeland.
Secondly, Netanyahu’s confrontational tone also needs to be seen in a local context: terror attacks are on the rise, and he is feeling the heat from his right flank. Earlier on Sunday, the prime minister condemned the “heinous attack” on a nine-year-old girl in the West Bank settlement of Psagot. “We discern an increase in terrorist attacks recently, and I must say that as long as the incitement continues in the official Palestinian media, the Palestinian Authority cannot avoid responsibility for these events,” he said.
In light of this and the killings of two soldiers two weeks ago, several right-wing members of Netanyahu’s coalition, including from his Likud party, have demanded he halt the peace talks. At the very least, they’ve urged him to halt the phased release of Palestinian security prisoners that form part and parcel of the ongoing rounds of talks. Netanyahu knows he can’t do either of those things — not with Obama pushing for an accord within nine months. What he can do, however, is pander to the right with a speech blaming the Palestinians for most of what’s wrong. And that’s precisely what he did.