Netanyahu Concedes on Palestinian State as Iran Looms in the Background

"Palestinian state." On the evening of June 14, 2009, Binyamin Netanyahu said it. Usually a composed and artful speaker, he was in an obvious condition of stress, his voice husky and the words often forced. His grim demeanor and constricted body language bespoke not only external pressures but also inner turmoil, a culmination of difficult decision-making.

His speech coincided with dramatic events in Iran, events that seemingly bear out Netanyahu's and Israel's position that Iran is not seeking peace but war, and that the idea of dialogue with its leaders is dubious at best and deadly dangerous at worst. But Netanyahu said little about Iran. He asserted that "the biggest threat to Israel, and the Middle East and all of humanity, is the meeting between radical Islamism and nuclear weaponry" -- and left it at that.

Instead his focus was on the Palestinian issue -- specifically on the points of contention between him and President Barack Obama. Obama, more than any other individual in the world, was Netanyahu's audience; his speech was both a public address and a personal message to a U.S. president who has stunned him with the vehemence of his very public demands.

In an obvious rebuff to Obama's implication in Cairo on June 4 that the Holocaust and other Diaspora persecutions formed the justification for Israel's existence, Netanyahu stated: "The right of the Jewish people over our country does not come from the suffering we have been through. Some say if it weren't for the Holocaust there would be no state if Israel. But I say that if Israel had been established in time there would not have been a Holocaust."

As he put it forthrightly: "Our right to establish our country here stems from one fact: Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people and it is here that our identity was forged."

That set the stage for his fundamental challenge to the Palestinians, an attempt by an Israeli prime minister who looks harried, worried, and even desperate, to get the ball somehow into their court. "The simple truth," he said, "is that the root of the conflict is the refusal to accept the Jewish people's right to exist in its historic homeland." And more explicitly: "The Palestinian leadership must recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people."

Netanyahu detailed the Palestinians' long history of rejectionism, from the 1947 UN Partition Plan and even earlier, down to the spurned offers of statehood by Israeli governments in 2000 and 2008. He cited the unilateral Gaza disengagement in which "we uprooted Jewish settlers from their homes, and received a barrage of missiles in return." He called for an end to the demand for resettling Palestinian refugees within Israel, recognized by almost all Israelis as a demand by Palestinian "moderates" for Israel's political dissolution, and for an end to Palestinian incitement against Israel.

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.