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Killing Israel’s peace process

Following on from Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo, this weekend it was the turn of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to stake out his vision for a way forward in the peace process with the Palestinians.

Ever since Netanyahu announced that he would be making an important speech, there had been plenty of speculation about its content. Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition allies desperately lobbied the PM to stick to his “principles” and some of them expressed confidence that the address would end up being satisfactory to their constituencies. The typical build-up spin was that Netanyahu was feeling “the heat” from both Washington and his rightwing government.

In the end, there was nothing surprising about the speech. EU policy chief Javier Solana was told on Friday by Netanyahu that Israel’s “security demands” with regards to Palestinian statehood included “demilitarisation, control of air space and control of border crossings”. Interior minister Eli Yishai had also already said how he expected Netanyahu to be “very general” and focus on “Israel’s security needs”.

The strategy of demanding Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state had already been voiced, and of course, a truncated, less-than-sovereign Palestinian “state” has been a standard Israeli position for some time. One commentator had surmised beforehand that Netanyahu would “use the term ‘Palestinian state’ as the wrapper for his own, far more restricted conception of Palestinian sovereignty”, embracing “a limited, conditional version of the two-state solution”.

Netanyahu’s main focus was to stake out these two “principles” for the peace process with the Palestinians: the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and a guarantee that a Palestinian state would be demilitarised.

This first “condition”, that the Palestinians “recognise Israel as a Jewish state” was posited by Netanyahu as both the root of the conflict, and also as the key for unlocking a “true final settlement”. He bemoaned the fact that “even the Palestinian moderates won’t say the most simple statement – Israel is the Jewish national state, and will remain such”.

This principle is intended to act as an insurmountable obstacle for Palestinians, as well as create a lot of irrelevant, propagandist fluff about the inability of Arabs to recognise the “Jewish presence” in the Middle East. As Netanyahu noted, “even” Mahmoud Abbas and the senior Fatah leadership do not consider recognising Israel as a Jewish state as on the “agenda”.

So it is worth thinking about why this is such an unacceptable demand – a thought process Netanyahu may regret encouraging. When Netanyahu and those who think similarly state that the “Land of Israel” is “the homeland of the Jewish people”, it is clear that the Palestinian presence is at best to be tolerated (depending on “good behaviour”). But demanding that the Palestinians themselves recognise Israel’s “right” to exist as a Jewish state is asking them:

… to acknowledge that it was and is morally right to do all the things that were and are necessary for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, even though these necessary things include their own displacement, dispossession and disenfranchisement.

Hardly a surprise, then, that Palestinians consider this condition absurd. But Netanyahu’s talk of a Palestinian state – apparently “groundbreaking’” – also served to provide the second condition for advancing with a negotiated settlement. Superficially, at least, the principle of a demilitarised Palestinian state is intended to sound “reasonable”, couched as it is in “security needs”; but again, Israel’s colonial mentality is demonstrated.

Netanyahu’s idea of a Palestinian state sounds like “a flag and currency” and not much else. Certainly no control over its own borders and no right to its own airspace, and all of this without even considering Israel’s intention to annex the settlement blocs. Netanyahu made the important point that the content was more important than “terminology”.

There were other points of note – Netanyahu reiterated the completely untenable and illegal Israeli claim to a so-called “united Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital. He affirmed that settlements would continue to grow “naturally”, and he rejected out of hand the Palestinian right of return.

Netanyahu’s speech was designed to save him domestically without completely insulting the Obama administration. Israeli media reports had already indicated that even within Likud, “Netanyahu would not have political trouble if he indirectly endorsed a two-state solution” since, as the prime minister noted, it is the nature of the “state” that matters more than the word.

It is clear that Netanyahu’s vision will block any advancement of a peace process that was already on its deathbed. As reactions to the speech came in, Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said that the Israeli leader had “sabotaged all initiatives” and “paralysed all efforts”. All of the Palestinian factions had already expressed their belief that the speech would offer nothing new, and negotiator Saeb Erekat described the address as a “slap in the face” for Obama’s plan.

The Ha’aretz website’s “live blogging” of the speech concluded with this wry summary of Netanyahu’s policy towards the Palestinians: “It seemed to be no to dividing Jerusalem, no to the return of refugees or an independent state and no to a real settlement freeze. But you’ll be well-off and taken care of.” This is a recipe for a new intifada, not peace.

Ironically, Netanyahu concluded by citing from the Biblical prophet Isaiah, looking forward to a future when “nation will not take up sword against nation”. Unfortunately for both Israelis and Palestinians, he missed a more appropriate verse; it is only “justice” that “will produce lasting peace and security”.

First published in the Guardian’s Comment is free.

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