At virtually every stop on his extended trip to Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed the need for hard truth and clarity. In remarks that were unusually blunt for a visiting head of state, Netanyahu outlined his vision for a Middle East peace that is not only at odds with recent White House proposals, but also anathema to Palestinians. That Netanyahu felt free to lecture Barack Obama at the White House last week, secure in the adoring reception he would later receive from both Republicans and Democrats at yesterday's speech before a joint session of Congress, only underscores how far apart these two leaders and their administrations remain in their readings of seismic events in the Middle East.
When Netanyahu flatly rejected Obama's call to restart territorial negotiations based on the borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, with mutual "land swaps," he wasn't actually rejecting the substance of the proposal. Netanyahu knows that fundamental construct has served as the basis for every Israeli-Palestinian negotiation going back to the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s. He objected to an American president stating the obvious publicly for the first time, thus potentially raising the expectations of Palestinian negotiators about the nature and ratio of those "land swaps." So Netanyahu mischaracterized what Obama had proposed, eyeball-to-eyeball in the White House, insisting it called for a return to 1967 borders.
"You had this perfect storm where in his Middle East speech Obama didn't explain very well what he meant by 'land swaps,' Netanyahu was so upset by the mention of 1967 borders that he basically mischaracterized the president's proposal for four days, and as a result the whole visit became hyperpartisan at a time when Israel was looking for bipartisan support from the United States," said David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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When Netanyahu repeatedly stressed that "Israel will not return to the indefensible lines of 1967," because they would leave Israel only "9 miles wide" at its most narrow point, he was pointing to an actual disagreement with the Obama administration. In his May 19 speech, Obama called for a "full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces" from a "demilitarized" Palestinian state. Netanyahu intends no such withdrawal. "It is absolutely vital for Israel's security that a Palestinian state be fully demilitarized, and it is vital that Israel maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River," Netanyahu said in his May 24 speech before Congress.
On the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Netanyahu was on firm ground in stating that "under any realistic peace agreement" the large settlement blocs on the outskirts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv will be incorporated into the final borders of Israel. That is the genesis of the required "land swaps" that Obama referred to in his proposal for restarting negotiations. But in grudgingly accepting the principle of "land for peace" that has undergirded Israel-Palestinian talks going back decades, Netanyahu adopted the narrative of the settlement movement that only Israel has a true, historic claim to the land.
"I recognize that in a genuine peace, we will be required to give up parts of the Jewish homeland," he told Congress. "In Judea and Samara [the West Bank and Gaza], the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. We are not the British in India. We are not the Belgians in the Congo. This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel.... No distortion of history can deny the 4,000-year-old bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land."
In calling for renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the issues of territorial borders and security, Obama cast them as a foundation from which to address the two most "wrenching and emotional issues" that would remain: the fate of Palestinian refugees and the future of Jerusalem. In the failed Camp David Summit of 2000 and Taba negotiations of 2001, Palestinians settled on only a token "right of return" for a limited number of Palestinian refugees in return for making East Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state.
Once again on his trip to Washington, however, Netanyahu called for Palestinian recognition of some hard truths, tipping his likely position should negotiations restart at some future date. "Palestinians from around the world should have a right to immigrate, if they so choose, to a Palestinian state. This means the Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved outside the borders of Israel," Netanyahu told Congress. "As for Jerusalem, [it] must never again be divided. Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel."
The vision for an eventual peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians that emerged from Netanyahu's visit was thus unyielding on nearly all of the key contested points. Israel will incorporate the major settlement blocs, maintain a long-term military presence, retain uncontested sovereignty over Jerusalem and deny the return of Palestinian refugees.
"President Obama tried to point out that the tides of history are moving against Israel and its occupation is becoming untenable, and in response Netanyahu delivered a point-scoring, propaganda speech that raised the bar for a Palestinian state beyond the reach of any imaginable Palestinian leader," said Daniel Levy, codirector of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. "I think Netanyahu knows a real peace deal will require compromises he is not willing to make, which has left him absolutely bereft of any viable vision for peace."