JERUSALEM — It’s as if Obama never happened.
Less than two weeks ago President Barack Obama laid out his plans for the Middle East in a speech in Cairo. He called for a freeze on Israeli settlement construction, among other things.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately announced that he’d make a key policy address in Tel Aviv. Commentators wracked their brains figuring out how Bibi, the nickname by which the Likud leader is known, would walk the tightrope between his nationalist coalition — which is very supportive of the West Bank settlements and disdains the idea of a Palestinian state — and Obama, who had made it clear that he sees the settlements as Israel’s main contribution to the failure of peace efforts.
But Netanyahu outsmarted them all. No smokescreen, no artful diplospeak, no talking out of both sides of his mouth.
Nothing but old-school Bibi.
The big policy speech turned out to be filled with typical nationalist rhetoric about the settlements. The olive branch held out to the Palestinians was loaded with the kind of conditions Netanyahu surely knows are unacceptable in Ramallah — let alone Gaza.
“We would be prepared to reach agreement as to a demilitarized Palestinian state side by side with the Jewish state,” Netanyahu told his audience at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.
He said “Palestinian state,” but he added an adjective that grates rather hard on the Palestinian ear: “demilitarized.” For Netanyahu that’s important because a militarized Palestinian state would, as he sees it, be much as Gaza is today, with the capacity to rain missiles on Tel Aviv and the country’s international airport. It could make a military alliance with Iran, like Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border and Hamas in Gaza. We’ve all seen how that turned out for Israel.
To Palestinians, a demilitarized state sounds like no state at all. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Netanyahu would “wait a thousand years to meet a Palestinian who’d accept his conditions.”
As for Obama’s gripe about settlements, Netanyahu seemed at first to be edging toward a compromise, something so cunning in its apparent straightforwardness that no one would notice he’d refused to comply with the American demands. “We have no intention of founding new settlements,” he said.
Well, that’s not the heart of Obama’s argument. He doesn’t want to be deflected by Israel pulling out of a few remote hilltop outposts. The U.S. wants even existing settlements to stay as they are — not growing by so much as a single brick — until the future of the land on which they stand is decided.
But Netanyahu trotted out the same formula Israel has always used for evading a settlement freeze: so-called natural growth. “We must give mothers and fathers the chance of bringing up their children as is the case anywhere in the world,” he said.
In other words, if children grow up in a settlement, Israel is bound to build a home for them there when they want to have their own place, so they don’t have to move elsewhere to find accommodation.
As if their parents didn’t move to the settlements from somewhere else.
As if Barack Obama didn’t insist there be no “natural growth” in the settlements.
No one expects Netanyahu to go head to head with Obama. The speech wasn’t intended as a gauntlet in the face of the U.S. But the Israeli prime minister is sailing pretty close to the White House wind.
It all played well with Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party. “It was a Zionist speech from his faith and heart,” said Limor Livnat, a leading Likud hawk. “I’d have preferred he hadn’t said ‘Palestinian state,’ but it was a good speech.”
The country’s rather lackluster opposition recognized that Netanyahu hadn’t given ground to Obama. “The speech was typical Netanyahu,” said Ofer Pines, a legislator from the Labor Party (Labor is part of the coalition, but some of its lawmakers including Pines refused to join the government.) “He said a very small ‘Yes,’ and a very big ‘No.’ He’s really only talking to himself.”
Except he’s not the only one listening. There must surely have been bemusement in Washington, as officials watched the speech, waiting for Netanyahu to adjust his previous positions.
Wait on. The Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, he said. Jerusalem, too, “would be the united capital of Israel.” He didn’t even offer to open the checkpoints into Gaza to let in construction material to rebuild the city ruined in the war between Israel and Hamas at the turn of the year.
The most optimistic of assessments — at least among those who oppose Netanyahu — was that the speech was just words. “It’s not what he says, it’s what he does after this that interests me,” said Haim Ramon, a legislator from the opposition Kadima Party.
Obama will surely second that.
More GlobalPost dispatches about Israel:
Bibi in a corner
Who will blink on Israeli settlements?
In Hebron, Noam Arnon sits tight and worries