Connect to share and comment

Netanyahu holds his line

Israeli prime minister ignores Obama and reiterates the same policies.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv on June 14, 2009. Netanyahu balked at meeting President Barack Obama's demand to stop Jewish settlement expansion. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

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.