Parsing Netanyahu’s Palestinian State

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has laid out his terms for peace in the Middle East. In a highly anticipated speech at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University last Sunday, Netanyahu said – for the first time – that he was willing to consider a "demilitarized" Palestinian state, existing side by side with Israel.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed the Israeli leader’s words, calling them an "important step forward" to resolving the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The question now being circulated in Washington is whether Netanyahu’s seemingly reluctant overture genuinely reflects a step forward for the Israeli prime minister, and what Washington can do next to try and mediate a deal that is crucial to its foreign policy goals in the Middle East.

Even though the White House appeared to interpret the speech as an endorsement of the two-state solution, the preconditions Netanyahu set for establishing such a state make it highly unlikely that any meaningful peace settlement can be achieved.

Those include a state with no army and no control of its airspace, an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, no right of return for Palestinian refugees, and Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, among others.

Palestinian and Arab leaders swiftly rejected the speech, but analysts in Washington say that, at the very least, it gives the U.S. administration an opening for discussions.

"However minor it may seem, however wrapped up in negatives, it is something to build on," wrote former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy, on the Prospects for Peace blog.

"It is also clearly something that cannot be left to the parties themselves to translate into a workable plan for actually realizing a two-state reality," he wrote. "That will be a job for the U.S. and its international and regional allies."

For that reason, Obama is seizing any overtures the Israeli prime minister may make.

"The president’s assumption has to be that until such a time when progress is impossible he has to assume the best about the intent," said Middle East expert Shibley Telhami, in a Monday conference call with the Israeli pro-peace group Americans for Peace Now.

"In the end, the credibility of the administration will be connected to the extent to which the president will move the Middle East closer to a two-state solution," said Telhami.

"Whatever the meaning of the Netanyahu speech, it will be tested soon because the administration is not going to get into this little detail of playing an indefinite process of negotiating little elements," he said.

But on the issue of immediate concern to Washington, Netanyahu made no firm commitments, rejecting the U.S. president’s calls for a complete halt to settlement construction in the West Bank.

Obama’s administration has made clear that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is part of the U.S. national interest. The president featured it prominently in his address to the Arab and Muslim world in Egypt earlier this month. Finding a resolution to that conflict is also part of a U.S. strategy to undercut the al-Qaeda terrorist group.

More immediately, the Obama administration’s call for a settlement freeze is aimed at bolstering beleaguered Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas has said he’s meeting his commitments under the 2003 road map for peace, engineered under former U.S. president George Bush. He has asked that Israel do the same.

The road map is a blueprint, incremental steps towards a future peace, and it calls for an Israeli settlement freeze. Israel has agreed to the road map but says its implementation depends on Palestinians fulfilling their obligations.

In his speech Sunday, Netanyahu made no mention of the road map, or Israel’s obligations under it. But he did refer to the need for Israeli settlers to lead "normal lives," a euphemism for continued construction in already existing settlements.

The "formal understandings" allegedly worked out under the 2003 agreement are now being seized upon by some leading neoconservative voices in the United States. They’re criticizing Obama for adopting a Palestinian version of events where they say Israeli concessions become the path to peace.

"If the administration chooses to keep fighting almost entirely on the settlement ‘freeze’ issue, it will be showing that a confrontation with Netanyahu is not a problem it seeks to avoid but a tactic it seeks to embrace," wrote Elliot Abrams, a former deputy national security advisor for Bush, in the neoconservative Weekly Standard.

Had Netanyahu embraced the road map, Abrams writes, it may have been easier to demand the benefits of the Sharon-Bush bargain on settlement activity. That "bargain" allegedly constitutes an understanding in which the U.S. accepted building within the "construction line" of Israeli settlements.

But as Dan Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, wrote in the Washington Post, "The effort to define the ‘construction line’ was never consummated: Israel and the United States discussed briefly but did not reach agreement on the definition of the construction line of settlements."

He argues that even if Palestinians failed to meet their obligations to curb violence against Israel, it is not a justification for Israel’s failure to implement its own road map commitments with respect to a settlement freeze.

In a press briefing Tuesday at the U.S. State Department, Obama’s special representative to the Middle East, George Mitchell, dismissed an Israeli newspaper report claiming that the Obama administration would allow "natural growth" of settlements within current boundaries, emphasizing there had been "no change" in Washington’s policy.

Mitchell said the question was what exactly Israel means by "natural growth." The White House says Mitchell’s responsibility is to create the conditions for peace talks between the two sides. On Tuesday, he hinted that those talks could come within weeks, not months.

On Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was also in Washington, where he said Israel would not halt all construction in settlements. The comments came after a meeting between Lieberman and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Despite the rift between Washington and Tel Aviv over the settlements question, most analysts say Netanyahu’s consideration of a Palestinian state is a step forward for the prime minister. But does it really move both sides closer to a possible settlement?

Netanyahu’s demands for a future Palestinian state, including no standing army, and no control over its airspace, defy the widely accepted definition of a sovereign state. But that’s not the problem, says Galia Golan, an Israeli political expert and a leading figure in Israel’s Peace Now movement.

She says that "demilitarization" has been a condition for Israeli policy makers from Oslo Accords of 1993 to Camp David.

"The problem is all the other caveats [Netanyahu] puts on the nature of a Palestinian state," she said. "In talking about the future, and what he wants to do or plans to do he presented a picture with so many conditions and so many demands, and so many reservations, that there isn’t really a Palestinian around who could accept it."

(Inter Press Service)