Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was in an unenviable position when he delivered his first major foreign policy address. He was facing tough demands from a highly popular new American president who gives the impression that he seeks to draw the United States closer to the Arab world by distancing it from Israel. Obama reversed the policy of his predecessor, which he described as “simply dictating solutions,” and expressed his intention of “engaging” with adversaries. Yet ironically Israel, until now regarded as an American ally, has been confronted with diktats from Obama, culminating with the tough demands contained in the otherwise affable address delivered in Cairo to a global Muslim audience.
At the same time, Netanyahu was confronted by hard-line nationalists in his own government, seemingly unable to appreciate that Israel does not have the capacity to stand alone against the entire world, who urged him to summarily dismiss the US demands.
Without groveling or conceding on issues related to Israel’s security, Netanyahu skillfully adopted a conciliatory position and averted a major breach in US- Israel relations. He demonstrated that the new Netanyahu has matured and acquired qualities of statesmanship and courage that are crucial for an Israeli leader in these difficult times. The enthusiastic public support he received after the speech demonstrated that his policies also reflected the Israeli consensus.
Some (myself included) maintained that Netanyahu should have endorsed a conditional Palestinian state from day one and avoided the considerable damage inflicted on Israel’s public image. Yet in retrospect, the delay in articulating Israel’s position until after the US President delivered his Cairo speech enabled Netanyahu to provide a number of concessions to Obama without compromising central issues.
It is to be regretted that in his brilliantly sculptured address to the Muslim world, Obama applied moral equivalency when referring to the Holocaust and Arab refugees. He also effectively endorsed the Arab narrative when implying that the creation of a Jewish state represented a restitution for the Holocaust which inflicted suffering on innocent Palestinians.
Netanyahu forcefully but diplomatically repudiated this false narrative, underlining the 3,500 years of profound Jewish connection to the Holy Land which preceded the Holocaust and politely highlighting facts which demonstrate that the suffering of the Palestinians all along has been largely self-inflicted.
The most sensitive component of Netanyahu’s address was the formal endorsement of a Palestinian state subject to acceptance of the following four caveats: (i) recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; (ii) demilitarization, endorsed by international guarantees to prevent the formation of another Hamastan or an Iranian enclave; (iii) an end to the obscene anti-Semitic incitement, which to this day permeates every sector of Palestinian society; and (iv) recognition that descendants of Palestinian refugees would not be repatriated to Israel.
GIVEN THE HISTORY of the Arab-Israel conflict, if the White House is unable to concede that Israel’s demands are eminently reasonable, then alas there may be substance in the fears previously expressed, suggesting that Obama may be willing to sacrifice Israel in a vain effort to appease the Islamic world. It would also revive dark memories of Chamberlain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia in the course of his futile effort to appease the Nazis.
In an effort to demonstrate goodwill and avoid frontal confrontation, Netanyahu undertook to impose a freeze in relation to creating new settlements. However he insisted that settlers be enabled to lead “normal lives,” signaling approval of natural growth in the major settlement blocs. He also expressed the commitment of his government to an undivided Jerusalem, guaranteeing freedom of worship to all religions.
The initial response from the Palestinians was hardly encouraging. The PA renewed threats to revert to armed conflict and terror, and Saeb Erekat declared that “Netanyahu will have to wait 1,000 years to find a single Palestinian who will co-operate with him on the basis of this speech.”
If the Palestinians refuse to consider Netanyahu’s proposals, they will be replicating the intransigent behavior of Arafat and Abbas, both of whom rejected offers from Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert for 97% of territory over the Green Line. This would reaffirm that ironically it is the Palestinians not Israelis who are the barrier to a Palestinian state, because their overriding motivation remains to obliterate Jewish sovereignty in the area.
Obama’s initial response to Netanyahu’s speech was that “what we are seeing is at least the possibility that we can restart serious talks.” The White House also stated that Netanyahu’s address was “an important step forward.”
But we must not delude ourselves. To date the Obama administration’s actions display a consistent determination to distance the United States from Israel in order to curry favor with the Arabs. We are already being pressured for additional concessions without reciprocity. The suggestion that Israel return to the indefensible 1948 “Auschwitz borders” shocked the nation, as did heartless demand that Israel make unilateral concessions to Hamas without regard to the release of Gilad Schalit.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and White House spokesmen have reiterated that the Administration rejects and denies undertakings that the Bush Administration supported: the Israeli retention of regions such as Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Adumim and settlements adjacent to Jerusalem. The Obama administration also demands that Jews be denied the right to establish homes in these areas. No Israeli government could agree to impose limitations on the right of Jews to reside in Jerusalem – the city from which their religious and national civilization originated.
UNDER THESE circumstances we desperately need a unity government. The Prime Minister has expressed a policy which enjoys the support of an overwhelming majority of the nation. Today, there is nothing of substance differentiating the policies of Kadima from those of Likud. For Tzipi Livni to continue subordinating the national interest at such a critical time merely to promote her personal ambition is simply unconscionable.
It is also now critical that we encourage American Jews to actively support us. With 80% of them having voted for Obama after his guarantee that he would never forsake Israel, their moral support would have a major impact. Besides, they should also stress that pressuring Israel and appeasing the Arabs will not only undermine Israel but will ultimately rebound against the United States.
Should Obama, despite protestations to the contrary, continue applying pressure on Israel while appeasing the Arabs, there would be serious grounds for questioning the commitment of the president to the security of the Jewish state. Hopefully the need to pose such a painful question will never arise.
Netanyahu has displayed courage in presenting a principled position which is supported by the vast majority of Israelis. He has reiterated that Israelis are willing to make real sacrifices to achieve a genuine peace. But until such time as our neighbors demonstrate reciprocity and genuine commitment to peaceful relations, we can no longer be expected to make further unilateral concessions but must unite and stand firm against pressures to force us to do otherwise.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post