Bibi Answers Obama

If ever there was a leader caught between a rock and a hard place, it is Israel’s Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, who recently regained the premiership after a long and frustrating battle to reverse his ignominious defeat ten years ago. Only a burning lust for power, combined with a sincere belief in his ability to lead Israel through tumultuous times, sustained him. As in his previous tenure, however, he once again has the "misfortune" of assuming office at a time when a popular, left-leaning Democrat is president — in this case, one viewed by many with almost messianic adoration.

In his recent speech to the Muslim world, Obama set a new course for U.S. policy in the region and in so doing challenged Netanyahu to join him in the effort, or risk American ire. Poor Bibi. During his first two months, he caused gratuitous tension with Obama by refusing to explicitly endorse a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and thereby convinced many that Israel, rather than the Palestinians, is the obstacle. Bibi knows that he cannot afford confrontation and that Israel must align itself with any administration.

At the same time, he was elected by a right-wing majority and his governing coalition, in Israel’s always volatile political environment, is already beginning to show cracks after just two months. Bibi very much does not want his premiership brought to a highly premature end.

What to do?

Bibi’s speech to Israel yesterday, was a direct answer to the challenge Obama posed. Fortunately, he demonstrated that he is capable of rising to the occasion. Like Obama, he promised to speak truthfully and did, though not without some diplomatic circumlocution.

The real reason for the conflict, as he stressed, is not the issue of a two-state solution. Israel has always supported this, from the very first time one was proposed by the British in 1937, in the 1947 U.N. partition plan, and on numerous occasions ever since, including Ehud Barak’s dramatic proposals at Camp David and subsequent acceptance of the even more far reaching Clinton Parameters (100% of Gaza and 97% of the West Bank, with a 1-2% land swap).

The Palestinians, conversely, have rejected every proposal for a two-state solution, most recently last year, when Olmert proposed a Palestinian state on 100% of Gaza and 93.5% of the West Bank, with a land swap for the rest. The Palestinian tragedy is that they have always taken an all or nothing approach and as a consequence have ended up with nothing.

In his speech, Netanyahu explicitly accepted a two-state solution, with three important conditions.

First, that the Palestinians finally recognize Israel as the Jewish people’s national home. Their refusal to do so, he correctly stressed, sixty years after Israel’s establishment, is the true source of the conflict. Only when the Palestinians accept the legitimacy of Israel’s existence will it be clear that they are ready for peace. With 22 states in the Arab League alone, virtually all of whom are defined as Muslim, there must be room for one Jewish state in the region.

Second, that the Palestinian state be demilitarized. After the bitter experience following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which led to the establishment of a fanatical Hamas mini-state there, Israel cannot allow the emergence of a similar entity in the West Bank. No sane and responsible state would. The West Bank, a hilly area, overlooks the entire heart of Israel, less than 9 miles wide at its narrowest point. Tel Aviv and its suburbs, Israel’s commercial and industrial heartland, governmental structure, most of its population and virtually all targets of importance are within rifle or rocket range of the West Bank.

Third, that the Palestinian refugee problem be resolved "outside of Israel’s borders," i.e. in the future Palestinian state or elsewhere, not by a "right of return." On this issue like no other he reflects a monolithic consensus in Israel, one which is shared by the U.S. but which is still at the heart of Palestinian demands and the "Arab Peace Initiative."

The hard-line rhetoric of Bibi’s first two months in office obscured a tragic but simple truth: The Palestinians are in such total disarray that even if Israel were to accede to their every demand, there is no one on their side who is both capable and desirous of reaching an agreement. Hamas is in firm control of Gaza and is likely to take over the West Bank as well if elections are held next January. Abbas, ostensibly the Palestinian president, has partial control at best over the West Bank. Many believe that Abbas, unlike his predecessor Arafat, is truly committed to peace with Israel but is constrained by his political weakness. His rejection of Olmert’s far-reaching proposal now calls this into question as well.

Bibi took the occasion to indirectly correct a well-meaning but misguided historical reference that many, including Obama in Cairo, often make. Israel was not born because of the Holocaust, but because the Jewish people kept the dream of a return to their ancient homeland alive for 2000 years. The battle for statehood began long before the Holocaust and was well underway when World War II broke out. Indeed, the truce Israel declared in its struggle for independence from the British, in order to pursue a common battle against the greater evil, Nazi Germany, may have led to a postponement of independence.

Bibi’s speech will not fully satisfy Obama. His acceptance of the two-state solution was grudging and conditional. He agreed to freeze new settlement construction and refrain from appropriating Palestinian land, but rejected the demand for total cessation ("natural growth"), which cannot be fully met as long as the settlements exist. He expressed support for Obama’s concept of regional peace but did not endorse the "Arab Peace Initiative," which the administration has been pushing, nor did he mention Syria.

Nevertheless, for a leader who truly believes his hard-line rhetoric and whose political future depends on an even harder right-wing coalition, Bibi has shown that he has what it takes to be a statesman. His recognition of Palestinian rights, a two-state solution and the international situation, an oblique reference to Obama’s new agenda, reflect the pragmatic realism of a statesman. He has moved forward.

Two questions remain. Will the Palestinians rise to the occasion too, and will Obama accept the important, if incomplete, evolution in Netanyahu’s positions, acknowledge the limits of his precarious political situation, and go forward from there, or seek confrontation? Does Obama engage with close democratic allies, caught up in the midst of an historic battle for their nation’s destiny, or just with "democracies,” such as Iran?