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Netanyahu’s Inconsistencies Beg Explanation

At a September 2 press conference in Washington with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “The people of Israel, and I as their prime minister, are prepared to go a long way, a long way in a short time, to achieve a genuine peace that will bring our people security, prosperity, and good neighbors” [emphasis added].

Going “a long way in a short time” — as short as one year, according to Clinton — is fraught with risk for Israel. Most often described as a “security hawk,” Netanyahu appears ready to offer the Palestinians significant territorial and other concessions in return for intangible promises. Netanyahu has decided, inexplicably, to reverse course on conditions he had once set as crucial to Israeli security, displaying preparedness for further territorial compromise.

While negotiating the Hebron agreement during his first term (1996-1999) as prime minister, Netanyahu introduced the principle of “reciprocity” into the peace process in an effort to test Palestinian intentions and, perhaps, to make concessions expected of him by the U.S. politically palpable at home. A year later at Washington’s National Press Club, Netanyahu reflected on his insistence on reciprocity:

[The Hebron agreement] said the two leaders reaffirm their commitment to implement the interim agreement on the basis of reciprocity. We each fulfill our obligations….

In his recent visit to Washington, however, Netanyahu signaled no intention to demand reciprocity in future peace agreements and seems to have dropped the condition entirely from his peace-process lexicon. Rather than have the Palestinians undertake a series of interim steps displaying goodwill and a commitment to peaceful coexistence, Netanyahu now asks only that the Palestinians verbally acknowledge Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Israel, under Netanyahu, is poised to once again extend to the Palestinians significant, irreversible concessions without any tangible, reciprocal gestures demonstrating goodwill.

Furthermore, Netanyahu said in Washington that he envisioned an agreement providing for “good neighbors.” Without insisting on reciprocal gestures of goodwill that speak to a sincere desire among Palestinians to coexist peaceably with Israelis — such as beginning to educate their people for peace and preparing them for conflict-ending concessions — it is difficult to imagine how such “good neighbors” among Palestinians will come about.

Netanyahu is walking back on previous assertions about the importance of good relations as a basis for lasting peace. In 1998, during his first term, Netanyahu told an international Christian group visiting Jerusalem:

There can be no peace as long as there’s this constant incitement against Israel; there can be no peace with hatred and hostility….

In A Durable Peace: Israel and its Place Among the Nations, which Netanyahu wrote in 1993 and revised shortly after completing his first term, Netanyahu said:

Peace requires that our Arab partners educate their people to an era of mutual acceptance. To begin resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, one must begin here.

Second, Netanyahu asserts that a peace agreement with Palestinians is possible provided any future Palestinian state is demilitarized. When Netanyahu conditionally accepted the principle of a two-state solution in a major policy address at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University in June 2009, he demanded that any future Palestinian state be demilitarized. He made no public mention, however, of this demand while visiting Washington in early September to re-launch peace talks.

In the Bar-Ilan address, Netanyahu said:

Territory under Palestinian control must be demilitarized [so that] Palestinians will not be able to import missiles into their territory, field an army, close their airspace to us, or make pacts with the likes of Hizballah and Iran. … It is impossible to expect us to agree in advance to the principle of a Palestinian state without assurances that this state will be demilitarized.

Netanyahu was firmly and clearly establishing demilitarization as a prerequisite for statehood.

Furthermore, Netanyahu said it was up to other countries to ensure Palestinian demilitarization:

We ask our friends in the international community, led by the United States, for … clear commitments that, in a future peace agreement, the territory controlled by the Palestinians will be demilitarized … [with] real monitoring.

Such a state, Netanyahu says, would meet Israel’s security needs.

Given the international community’s discouraging record of monitoring and enforcing demilitarization elsewhere, it is surprising that Israel’s leading “security hawk” would put faith in Palestinian demilitarization and international will to guarantee it. In Lebanon, Hezbollah “has been preparing for a conventional fight against Israel by stockpiling weapons in the south in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions,” according to a recent analysis by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  Bullets, rockets, artillery shells, and explosives “represent only a fraction of the weapons Hezbollah has procured,” despite the presence of UN peacekeepers and monitors.

Netanyahu’s embrace of demilitarization as enabling the creation of a Palestinian state contravenes his previous and absolute opposition to the idea. In A Durable Peace, Netanyahu expressed serious doubts about the efficacy of demilitarization, begging an explanation as to why he now thinks such an arrangement can enhance, if not ensure, Israel’s security. Netanyahu wrote:

Advocates of Israeli concessions [say that] areas vacated by Israel will be “demilitarized.” But traditional concepts of demilitarization cannot be applied here. … In an open, empty, unpopulated area like the Sinai, demilitarization can be enforced against the entry of tanks or artillery pieces into an area. … But demilitarization is woefully ineffective against the miniaturized weapons of today and tomorrow, which can be smuggled into a populated area such as the West Bank with relative ease, threatening vital Israeli ground and air installations. Demilitarization of the territories is therefore not an answer. Where hostility is so deeply rooted, arms so readily available, and distances so compressed, a “demilitarized zone” is wishful thinking [emphasis added].

Netanyahu continued:

Advocates of demilitarization of the West Bank are therefore talking about demilitarizing an entire sovereign state — something unheard-of in the annals of nations, and for good reason: It cannot be sustained.

Demilitarization under dictatorships, like what the Palestinian Authority has become without new elections, is even riskier, Netanyahu said, because dictators can re-militarize without risk of a backlash from their people.

In A Durable Peace, Netanyahu could not have seemed more doubtful of demilitarization as a means to justify fresh territorial concessions. He concluded:

The fervent desire by some to abandon the West Bank cannot be a substitute for clear thinking, and the first order of clarity is to recognize that the concept of demilitarization may sound like a useful panacea to offer an Israel anxious about its security but it cannot hold over time, indeed not even for a short time. Even if some Palestinian Arabs could be persuaded initially to accept demilitarization, this commitment is not one that could be expected to last long, and Israel would find itself unable to reassert its military authority in the area … [emphasis added].

Given such a definitive denunciation of demilitarization, it is unclear why Netanyahu now thinks enough of the option not only to consider it but to make it a pillar of his negotiating strategy in renewed peace talks. With demilitarization impractical and reciprocity abandoned, Netanyahu seems to have few tools left to assure Israelis that any deal forged in as little as one year would be an improvement over the relative calm that prevails today.

In a speech to a group of American Jews last November, Netanyahu said:

Even after we achieve peace it may take years for the spirit of peace to permeate most levels of Palestinian society [emphasis added].

Hence, while Netanyahu once spoke of “good neighbors” and an end to “hatred and hostility” as a prerequisite to peace, now he is willing to relegate such details to some future date. He seems to think that just as a “cold” peace has held with Egypt and Jordan so could one hold with the Palestinians. As he once admitted himself, however, demilitarization is an insufficient security guarantee to test that hypothesis.

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