In Herzliya, Netanyahu thumbs his nose at the Palestinians – and the world

At the heart of a rambling policy address was PM’s unapologetic defiance in the face of international frustration over stalled peace efforts

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Herzliya conference on June 9, 2015. (Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Herzliya conference on June 9, 2015. (Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Just five minutes into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meandering Herzliya Conference speech Tuesday night, it was clear that he meant for it to be ignored — at least, that is, by Israel’s prime time television news, to which conference organizers had timed the event.

The delivery style – smiling knowingly into the audience, telling odd vignettes about India’s prime minister and Google’s CEO, switching between Hebrew and English seemingly at random, praising free-market capitalism with no clear point, even at one point recalling his own reforms of Israeli currency controls from the mid-1990s – was all so out of character and so hard to follow that it is hard to escape the conclusion that he did not mean for it to be closely followed by a local audience.

This is, after all, Benjamin Netanyahu — calculating, thoughtful, proud of his tactical prowess.

If so, it worked. The speech was largely ignored by Israelis and the media, and barely featured on the evening news. “There’s nothing new in this speech,” declared one Israeli political reporter after another. Listening to the speech was “like being forced to look at an uncle’s vacation photos,” agreed one foreign correspondent.

And yet, embedded deep within the speech, tied intimately to the informal, even disdainful style, lay something of a new message, or at least a signal of a changing policy sensibility.

Go ahead and boycott, go ahead and sanction, Netanyahu was saying. Our concerns over security are real, based on bitter experience, and vastly more important to us

Netanyahu was not unaware of the context of his speech: the growing consciousness among Israeli leaders that the democratic West is losing patience with, and has already lost faith in, his Palestinian policy. And he took the time to subtly ridicule these concerns.

“We don’t want a one-state solution. I don’t want a one-state solution. I remain committed to a solution of two states for two peoples,” Netanyahu announced roughly 35 minutes into the speech, eliciting the very first round of applause from an audience composed of Israeli officials, diplomats and the press.

Then, in jocular tone, he demanded, “That’s the only thing you clap for?”

It was a moment of incomprehensible levity. The prime minister’s expression of support for a two-state solution won applause precisely because so many in the room question it. And his mockery of their applause mocked not their timing, but the concern itself.

Netanyahu proceeded to lay out his conditions for that two-state solution.

“The solution as I see it is a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state. These are not conditions for entering the talks. I place no conditions. But these are the foundations for an enduring peace between us and the Palestinians, assuming the region will not be swept by these larger forces [of radical Islam].”

Recognition and demilitarization, he went on, would ensure that “what happened in Gaza doesn’t happen again, what happened in Lebanon doesn’t happen again. These are not – help me” – he turned to the audience, seeking a translation for the Hebrew word gachamot – “whims, these are not pretexts, excuses, arguments. This is real.

“How do you prevent tunnels from being dug from Kalkilya to Kfar Saba?” he asked. “There are several thousand tunnels in the seamline between Gaza and Egypt. That’s 17 kilometers – several thousand tunnels. Who will ultimately guarantee that those tunnels are not dug, who will go in in Kalkilya and stop it? Who will prevent the smuggling of weapons?”

In Gaza, he added, the real problem wasn’t smuggling, but indigenous production of weapons.

Suddenly switching to Hebrew, he explained that weapons manufacturing “happens in Gaza because we aren’t there, but it doesn’t happen in Ramallah. It doesn’t happen in Ramallah because, when necessary – we’ll be very happy if the Palestinian Authority does it; we welcome every cooperation on security – but in the end, the real defense backbone is Israel’s defensive capabilities. And therefore the question of disarmament of Judea and Samaria isn’t a trivial one. It isn’t measured only through the sealing of the border. We learned that lesson the hard way [in Gaza]. We have to ensure an ongoing security regime that gives solutions to those problems, assuming the region remains stable. These aren’t excuses, these are real.”

And to satisfy those Israeli needs, he went on, “you have to have negotiations.”

It was all old news, all delivered a hundred times before.

But that was just the build-up. It was then, after making his case for demilitarization and recognition, that Netanyahu moved on to the real message. His message wasn’t directed at Israelis, but at the foreigners in the room, at the European governments and Obama administration officials (for whose benefit he even jokingly, gratingly referred to his March speech to Congress) who question his sincerity on peace, and perhaps most of all at Palestinian leaders.

“So I again call on President [Mahmoud} Abbas to return to negotiations without preconditions,” he began. “But I also know he has” — Netanyahu chuckled — “very little reason to talk. Why should he talk? He can get by without talking. He can get by with an international community that blames Israel for not having talks. In other words, the Palestinians run from the table. They ran away from Prime Minister [Ehud] Barak, from Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert, before that from Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon, and they ran away from me. When John Kerry proposed a framework for negotiations, a framework for disagreement for God’s sake, they ran away from that too.

Any attempt to impose peace ‘doesn’t work anyway,’ he said airily, with the last word stated off-handedly, as though nothing could be more obvious

“But the Palestinians have a nifty trick up their sleeves. They refuse to negotiate and then get international pressure, sanctions, boycotts on Israel for there not being negotiations. It’s a perfect catch-22.”

Did he mean a catch-22 for Israel? No, he soon clarified.

“And there are those who attempt to impose terms on Israel in the Security Council because there are no talks. And some of them pretend that the dangers we face are not real dangers at all,” Netanyahu said.

And then began his coup de grace: “I think what that does is drive peace away. The idea of imposing peace from the outside doesn’t work anyway, but what it guarantees is, one, we’ll resist it, two, the Palestinians will not come to the table. Because if they can get starting terms that are unacceptable to any Israeli government and from which they can press their charges even more, why should they come to negotiate?”

There it was. Netanyahu’s message lay not in the longstanding complaint about the lack of international pressure on the Palestinians, but in his casual defiance.

Any attempt to impose peace “doesn’t work anyway,” he said airily, with the last word stated off-handedly, as though nothing could be more obvious. Meanwhile, unilateral Palestinian moves, and all the ballyhooed international pressure they entail, simply “guarantees we’ll resist it.”

One thing at least can be said of Netanyahu’s defiance: he has a point.

At a purely tactical level, given the fact that many Israelis believe any West Bank withdrawal is profoundly dangerous and all but certain to result in a Gaza-style implosion in the territory, there simply isn’t any meaningful way for the world to force Israel’s hand.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Herzliya Conference, June 9, 2015. (Erez Harodi - Osim tzilum)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Herzliya Conference, June 9, 2015. (Erez Harodi – Osim tzilum)

The whole premise underlying efforts to “exact a cost” for 47 years of occupation, in the hopes of ending it, is that the benefits Israel gains from continued control of the West Bank are primarily economic, resource-driven (for example, control of the territory’s water), or the expression of a political ideology. Indeed, the strategy of pressuring Israel rests on the assumption that these benefits are slight enough that it is possible to raise the costs for Israel to the point where it will no longer be worth clinging to the territory.

At its most basic level, this is the assumption that underlies both Hamas’s strategy of sustained violence and the far more benign efforts of European diplomats who seek to embarrass and single out Israel from among democratic nations for the continuation of its Palestinian policy.

But if Israelis believe – the strategy, after all, is premised on making the cost as Israelis perceive it higher than the benefit as Israelis perceive it – that the main benefit of continued possession of the West Bank is that it ensures the safety of their children by ensuring Hamas does not gain control of a territory 20 times larger than Gaza (a figure Netanyahu quoted in his speech) and bordering on the nation’s major population centers, then it is hard to imagine what cost the world can impose that would be worth that risk.

The Herzliya speech amounted to one of Israel’s greatest political tacticians offering his unflattering assessment of the strategic underpinnings of the new surge in efforts to pressure Israel. Netanyahu’s attitude, his flippant disregard for his audience’s feelings, and the meandering rhetoric that prevented the message from being made too directly, were all part of the message.

And it is this: go ahead and boycott, go ahead and sanction. Our concerns over security are real, based on bitter experience, and vastly more important to us than any costs you can conceivably impose. Pressuring Israel, then, only traps the Palestinians in the ongoing delusion they have a way out of peace negotiations, a path to independence that doesn’t pass through the Israeli body politic.

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