Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday delivered a remarkable speech celebrating a potentially historic transformation — for Israel in its regional relations and security, for broader Jewish-Islamic ties, and for much of the rest of the international community as well.
He spoke two days after sitting down with US President Joe Biden to discuss the prospects for Israel normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia — a momentous partnership, capable of elevating and stabilizing Israel’s status in the Middle East, which until relatively recently had seemed at best a distant possibility, but which the Biden administration has been quietly advancing.
And he spoke, too, following a landmark television interview in which Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman, confirmed to his people, ours and the watching world that “every day we get closer” to Saudi-Israel peace, in what the crown prince said would mark “the biggest historical deal since the end of the Cold War.”
Bin Salman’s interview, promising to work with “whoever’s running Israel” in the cause of this new regional order, meant that Netanyahu, back at the UN General Assembly after a five-year break, was able to echo the late Shimon Peres’s grandiose prediction of a “new Middle East” but to do so in an address asserting vindication.
Where well-intentioned ostensible experts had failed to widen Israel’s circle of peace for a quarter-century, he, insisting that the Palestinians should not and need not constitute a barrier to further agreements, had first signed the Abraham Accords during the Trump presidency and now led Israel to the brink of peace with Saudi Arabia alongside Biden.
In light of the US president’s self-described “Irish optimism,” bin Salman’s understated bombshell interview, and the fact that a planned economic corridor linking India to Europe via both Israel and Saudi Arabia was recently announced at the G20 summit, Netanyahu was able to credibly assert that “a monumental change” is at hand for Israel, the Middle East and beyond — “another pivot of history,” as he put it.
“I believe that we are at the cusp of an even more dramatic breakthrough: an historic peace with Saudi Arabia,” the prime minister declared. “Such a peace will go a long way to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. It will encourage other Arab states to normalize relations with Israel. It will enhance the prospects of peace with the Palestinians. It will encourage a broader reconciliation between Judaism and Islam, between Jerusalem and Mecca, between the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael.”
Understandably, Netanyahu preferred not to discuss some of the taller hurdles that will have to be cleared if behind-the-scenes interaction is to be shepherded to public fruition. Will it prove possible, for instance, to reconcile Israel’s need to maintain its qualitative military edge with the Saudis’ military demands of the US in what, even after an Israel-Saudi peace, would remain a profoundly threatening region? And can adequate safeguards be designed to protect against what the crown prince stated would be the necessity for Saudi nuclear weapons should Iran move to the bomb?
The prime minister did spell out how the Palestinians could, in theory, become beneficiaries of the process, rather than its spoilers: Israeli-Palestinian peace requires that the Palestinians “stop spewing Jew-hatred and finally reconcile themselves to the Jewish state,” he said. “By that, I mean not only to the existence of the Jewish state but to the right of the Jewish people to have a state of their own in their historic homeland, the Land of Israel.”
Netanyahu has said words to this effect many times before. He evidently believes that Saudi Arabia, though the architect of the Arab Peace Initiative that requires a Palestinian state, is not going to make full, independent Palestinian sovereignty a pre-condition for its deal with Israel.
And yet bin Salman, when asked in his Fox TV interview what it would take to normalize relations with Israel, responded, “For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part. We have good negotiations [that] continue till now. We’ve got to see where it will go.”
Naturally if glaringly left unsaid in Netanyahu’s speech, therefore, was quite how the prime minister believes he could sign an agreement that “solves” the Palestinian issue and still maintain a governing coalition widely hostile to any substantial concessions to the Palestinians.
The short answer is that he could not. The longer answer is that the transformative promise he described from the UN podium has the potential to remake Israel’s political alignments as well as its geostrategic reality.
Also left unmentioned, unforgivably, by Netanyahu, however, was any reference to the bitter divides he has been exacerbating these past nine months in the Israel on whose behalf he was speaking, and whether he will “pivot” and seek “a broader reconciliation” at home, too.
He and his coalition have sparked unprecedented internal division by attempting to steamroll legislation through parliament that would neuter the Israeli judicial system, give almost untrammeled power to the governing majority, and clear the path for an array of radical far-right and ultra-Orthodox policies and legislation.
In his brief public remarks alongside Biden, Netanyahu managed the bland pledge that “Israel’s commitment to democracy” will never change — even as he continues to insist elsewhere that he will legislate to remake the way Israel chooses its judges.
During Friday’s 25-minute address, as thousands outside demonstrated against the threat he and his coalition pose to Israel’s internal freedoms, its mode of government, its ethos and its orientation, the prime minister devoted lengthy passages not only to the blessings of Saudi peace and the curse of the fanatical Iranian regime’s march toward the bomb, but also to grand and lengthy musings on the rise of artificial intelligence, the potential for lengthening human life by decades and even for extending humanity “beyond our blue planet.” But he found no time for even the vaguest reference to the raging battle his coalition has triggered over Israeli democracy.
Netanyahu has never been more credibly eloquent on cementing Israel’s place among the nations, and never more conspicuously silent on the disunity and disharmony of Israel under his stewardship. In a speech that ran to no fewer than 2,700 words, he offered no assurance that the Israel he aims to lead to an historic regional peace will be the Israel of rights and freedoms, of equality and tolerant Judaism, envisaged in the Declaration of Independence — no assurance, that is, of an Israel at peace with itself.
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