Alex Kolomoisky/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin

Netanyahu Address Satisfies White House But Few Others

June 15, 2009 05:00 PM
by Liz Colville
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address was an “important step forward,” President Obama said, but other reactions suggest that Israel and Palestine may still be far from a formal two-state agreement.

Speech Leaves Several Old Issues Up for Debate

In a recent address at Bar-Ilan University, Prime Minister Netanyahu, the leader of Israel’s conservative Likud party, effectively “endorsed an independent Palestinian state,” The Associated Press reported, but said it “would have to be unarmed and recognize Israel as the Jewish state.” This would essentially result in Palestinian refugees “giving up the goal of returning to Israel,” AP added.

Netanyahu’s words were seen as a response to President Barack Obama’s June 4 address in Cairo, Egypt, which focused on the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Obama called for the creation of a Palestinian state and an end to the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the BBC reported.

Netanyahu addressed three issues in his speech, available via Israeli newspaper Haaretz: the global economic crisis, Iran’s election and “the promotion of peace,” Haaretz reported. “I appeal tonight to the leaders of the Arab countries and say: Let us meet,” Netanyahu said. “Let us talk about peace. Let us make peace. I am willing to meet at any time, at any place, in Damascus, in Riyadh, in Beirut, and in Jerusalem as well.”
Netanyahu appealed to the Arab world, emphasizing partnership and collaboration in the Middle East in order to “to give the economy a jump-start.”

“Israel is committed to international agreements,” he went on, “and expects all sides to fulfill their obligations.” He also called on the Palestinian Authority to “overcome” Hamas.

But “given the caveats”—a demilitarized Palestine state, recognition of Israel as the Jewish state and continued Jewish settlements in the West Bank—the speech “was immediately rejected as a nonstarter by Palestinians,” The New York Times reported.

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Reactions: Many objections to Netanyahu’s speech

Netanyahu’s speech marked “a dramatic transformation for a man raised on a fiercely nationalistic ideology and who has spent a two-decade political career criticizing peace efforts,” the AP reported. But Palestinian responses to the address were not as optimistic.

The speech “torpedoes all peace initiatives in the region,” Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told the BBC.

Hamas went further, saying the speech represented Netanyahu’s “racist and extremist ideology,” the BBC added. The Israeli prime minister’s requests “make the peace offered to the Palestinians ‘peace of slaves’ and their state an ‘Israeli colony,’” Hamas was quoted as saying by The Palestinian Information Center, a news site.

The White House’s reaction to the speech was “positive, if limited,” The New York Times wrote, calling it “the important step forward” for Netanyahu.

“Palestinian negotiators have long refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” The Times explained, “contending that it would prejudge the refugees’ demand for a right of return and would be detrimental to the status of Israel’s Arab minority.” The Times added that the speech was “rich in Zionist rhetoric and seemed aimed as much at Israelis as at the Obama administration.”

Endorsements from the United States, European Union and Yesha Council, which represents Jewish settlements in the West Bank, came in following the speech, Times Online of London reported. But even Israeli commentators “poured scorn on Mr Netanyahu’s speech.”

In the Israeli newspaper Maariv, Ofer Shelah was quoted by Times Online as saying: “With tight lips, as if being forced by the president of the United States, Binyamin Netanyahu succeeded in saying that if and when and maybe and perhaps, he would be willing for there to be something obvious, something that Israel signed on to long ago and that he himself adopted 13 years ago.”

But Netanyahu’s speech “was less about pursuing Arab-Israeli peace and much more about pursuing the U.S.-Israeli relationship,” said Aaron David Miller in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations. “It's part of a tick-tock in an ongoing test of wills between President Obama, ‘Mr. Yes We Can,’ and the prime minister, ‘Mr. No You Won't.’”

Background: President Obama’s Cairo speech and reactions

President Obama’s June 4 speech in Cairo briefed the Muslim world on his administration’s stance on several key issues. On the subject of Israel and Palestine, he conveyed his wish for a Palestinian state and an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank region.

“Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities,” he said of the militant group that currently controls the Gaza Strip. “To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist.” Read the full speech or watch the video via The Huffington Post.

The AP reported on some reactions to Obama’s speech, pointing out that one Israeli government official “said the speech could have been worse for Israel, while a settler spokeswoman called Obama naive and out of touch with reality. A dovish lawmaker said the speech created an important opportunity for peace.”

“The state of Israel isn't against reconciliation," Danny Seaman, the director of Israel's Government Press Office, was quoted as saying by the AP. But Seaman “warned against any moves that could ‘be used by the extremists to endanger Israel and endanger the peace process.’”

Reference: Web Guide to the Israel Palestine Conflict


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