Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Not adequate" doesn't begin to describe Netanyahu's "policy speech"

Israeli PM just finished a 30 minute "policy speech" at Bar-Ilan University. No English transcript seems to be available yet but Haaretz has been liveblogging his comments. As I posted earlier, U.S. Envoy George Mitchell described an advance version of the speech as "not adequate" and I think that is really sugar-coating the speech he just gave. Netanyahu's speech (pitifully compared to Obama's earlier one in Cairo) was less of a policy speech and more of an affirmation to his ruling coalition that he'll toe the party line. Put simply, I have to say my initial impression is that the speech was a farce - and an abysmal attempt to try and curry favor with those that were hoping he'd come out strong for a Palestinian state in favor of the peace process.

As I said, I don't have a transcript (I'll post it as soon as I find one) but I do have some comments based on Haaretz's liveblogging of the speech. I imagined the speech would be underwhelming, with Bibi giving very little away, but I have to say - I am appalled by his statements. The speech started out relatively hopeful too, which makes the final product even more disappointing.

He began by extending his hand to the Arab world with, "Let's make peace, let's talk peace," and called for an immediate resumption of peace talks without preconditions - both positives. At this point, somewhere deep inside my cynical heart for the peace process, a new warmth began to spread. Rest assured, this did not last long.

Netanyahu then made the absurd assertion that the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the Palestinians' unwillingness to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This seems odd, considering that both Jordan and Egypt enjoy a stable peace with Israel and have never formally recognized Israel this way. The whole recognition issue in the past dwelt on the Arab world's recognition of Israel's right to exist, not the ethno-religious character of the state itself.

As the speech begins to crash and burn, Netanyahu tells Bar-Ilan that the last time settlements were evacuated (in Gaza) Israel received nothing but rockets and bombings in return. Former Israeli negotiator Daniel Levy has a spectacular refutation of this resilient myth:

There is also some appalling misinformation being spread – one frequently hears the claim that Israel left Gaza in 2005 in order to build peace but all it received was terror. I appreciate the Gaza evacuation of 2005 and how difficult it was and I in no way condone the launching of rockets against civilian targets from Gaza but the unilateral nature of the Gaza withdrawal was a mistake (and I said it at the time) and I don't appreciate this rewriting of history. Israel at the time did not evacuate Gaza as part of the peace process. Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon explicitly said that Israel "will stay in the territories that will remain." His most senior adviser who was in charge of the disengagement, Dov Weisglass, was even more explicit stating that the plan would freeze the peace process and "prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state…it supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians." This was brought out by the fact that, as mentioned, Gaza was immediately placed under closure – and those who blame the Gazans for not developing their economy post-occupation should be reminded of that.
Despite Netanyahu's earlier promise that he would sit with Palestinians without preconditions, he later demanded that the Palestinians give up the right of return and any claims on Jerusalem. He also made the strange comparison of Israel taking in refugees after the Holocaust to the current Palestinian refugee crisis - which bears little resemblance to the post-Holocaust immigration of Jewish refugees to Israel.

As Netanyahu winded down and his entire ruling coalition enjoyed a collective sigh of relief that he wasn't going to make any substantial concessions in peace talks with Palestinians, he also stated (not surprisingly) that any future Palestinian state would have to be demilitarized. It seems if you say you're willing to talk without preconditions but then stipulate several conditions for the future Palestinian state, you're being disingenuous somewhere along the line.

If you couldn't guess yet, he's not budging on Israel's illegal settlement enterprise either. Iranian elections, Netanyahu's abysmal speech - looks like a bad weekend for Obama.

Updates will follow when I find an English transcript...

Updated: It seems Netanyahu has said that Israel will not build any new settlements or expand existing ones, but that "natural growth" must be allowed to occur. We'll see what that means in practice, I guess. Israel has been generally less than effective at controlling the establishment of illegal outposts, even causing a Israeli Supreme Court justice to ask whether the government was actually committed to the rule of law in the West Bank.

Netanyahu also stated that, "Israel is committed to international agreements and expects all the other parties to fulfill their obligations as well." However, those international agreements include the 2003 Road Map which obligates Israel to halt all settlement expansion, including natural growth.

Update 2: Palestinian lead negotiator Saeb Erekat commented on Netanyahu's speech, "The peace process moved like a tortoise, today Netanyahu flipped it on its back."

Update 3: I finally have located an English transcript of the speech.

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