Netanyahu Concedes on Palestinian State as Iran Looms in the Background

They were all familiar points and more or less consensual in Israel, but there is no denying that the U.S. administration has been strikingly near-silent on them compared to its loud hectoring of Netanyahu's new government. With the ball then -- or so Netanyahu would have it -- in the Palestinian court, he came to the headline-making crux of his speech, his statement of what he, as prime minister and longtime right-wing leader, would be willing to accept if the Palestinians were to live up to his demands on them.

"In our vision," he said, tensely and grimly, "we see two states side by side, each with its own flag and anthem. ... We must make sure that the Palestinians cannot create an army. We cannot be expected to agree to a Palestinian state without receiving guarantees that it will be demilitarized. We ask the international community for an express commitment that the Palestinian state's area will be demilitarized with effective measures -- not like the ones in Gaza."

Having then made that historic concession -- first and foremost, to Obama -- Netanyahu turned to the other bone of contention with the U.S. administration: the settlements.

Here -- apart from the considerable ground Israel has already given in recent years -- he gave no further ground, stating: "We do not intend to build new communities or expropriate land. But fathers and mothers in Judea and Samaria must have the possibility to let their children live beside them. The settlers are not enemies of the people; they are a pioneering, Zionist, values-oriented public. They are our brothers and sisters." A direct rebuff, then, to the U.S. administration's repeated calls for an end to "natural growth," its implicit characterization of Jewish life -- and procreation -- in Judea and Samaria as near-criminal.

But with Israel's leading right-wing figure since the early 1990s now on record in favor of an -- albeit circumscribed, albeit restricted -- Palestinian state, no one expected Netanyahu's relative steadfastness on the settlements to placate the more right-wing elements in his coalition. The small Jewish Home faction announced it now had to "weigh its future."

And Likud Member of Knesset Danny Danon stated, "The prime minister said 'Palestinian state' -- we'll try to get that part erased. The speech was brilliant, but Netanyahu gave in to American pressure. The residents of Israel are not laboratory mice of the new American president. Enough Israeli citizens have been killed because of unilateral concessions on our part."

As for the Palestinians, their reactions seemed to bear out Netanyahu's claim that it is they who find peace hard to swallow. Nabil Abu Rudeinah, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said that "Netanyahu's remarks have sabotaged all initiatives, paralyzed all efforts being made, and challenge the Palestinian, Arab, and American positions."

Well-known Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was yet more emphatic: "President Obama, the ball is in your court tonight. ... You can treat Netanyahu as a prime minister above the law and ... close off the path of peace tonight and set the whole region on the path of violence, chaos, extremism, and bloodletting. The alternative is to make Netanyahu abide by the road map. ... The peace process has been moving at the speed of a tortoise. Tonight, Netanyahu has flipped it over on its back." So much for "moderate" Palestinian reactions to Netanyahu's groundbreaking, coalition-risking agreement to a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu is playing a dangerous game, politically and otherwise, because he feels his country to be in danger. Palestinian sovereignty between the Mediterranean and the Jordan would indeed pose grave risks; internationally enforced demilitarization does not have a good track record, certainly not -- though Netanyahu didn't mention it -- in the case of UNIFIL in southern Lebanon.

But next to that hypothetical risk stands the very real risk of Iran's continuing radicalism and march toward nuclear weapons, and -- for all his relative silence on it in his speech -- it is that threat that led Netanyahu to bend to Obama in a quest for common ground.