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Israel-Palestine: How Netanyahu Demolished the Plan A of the Peace Process

Related Post: Israel-Palestine - Netanyahu’s Two-State Magical Sidestep
Transcript: Netanyahu Speech on Israel-Palestine (14 June)

Netanyahu Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s carefully-framed speech on 14 June portrayed a peaceful Israel pursuing all necessary steps for a regional peace agreement.

It's when you read the speech more closely that problems emerge. Netanyahu’s priority of economic development rather than political agreements, Israel’s pre-conditions for peace (including no pre-conditions on Israel), and its political and social securitization are out of step with dynamics in the Middle East.

Netanyahu's speech was bolstered by developments  such as the conflict between Fatah and Hamas. Since the beginning of June, the tension in the West Bank has soared dramatically. After several Hamas members were killed by Fatah, a Damascus-based Hamas spokesman, Talal Nasser, called on Palestinians to fight the Palestinian Authority as though they were fighting the Israeli occupation. In response, the Palestinian police arrested 36 Hamas supporters in the West Bank. Hamas’s unsustainable and irrational steps were partly curbed by its chief in Damascus, Khaled Mashaal, who complained instead about pre-conditions set by the Obama Administration. He declared that Hamas would not be an obstacle to the peace process if it was included as a partner in Israeli talks with the Palestinian Authority.

However, in the eyes of important actors in the international community, there is no legitimate ground for Hamas unless it confirms the conditions of the Quartet: recognition of Israel, ending terrorist activities and abiding by the past agreements signed by the PA. And Hamas will not issue that confirmation as long as Gaza and the West Bank are divided both geographically and politically.

Thus Netanyahu can rely upon the "existential threat" of a strong Hamas troubling Fatah in the West Bank and, more importantly, relying of the backing of a "potentially nuclear-armed" Iran.

There are, of course, issues beyond Hamas. How can there be a peace process with Fatah while settlements are still not frozen and the proposal of a demilitarized Palestinian state includes "ironclad security provisions" for Israeli security forces? How can Netanyahu foresee a real regional peace agreement without giving any concessions  to Israel's Arab neighbours, for example, when his Syrian colleague Bashar Assad has already declared that there will be no negotiations without the promise to return the Golan Heights to Syria?

For Netanyahu, the wonder of "Hamas" is that it can always trump these difficulties because of the overriding notion of Israeli "security".

Securitization of Israel’s Existence

The remarkable threats in Netanyahu’s speech were those of nuclear weapons and radical Islam. Because Iran is considered as the nexus of these two, it is the number one enemy for Israel. Radical Islam’s branches – Hamas and Hezbollah – follow:
The Iranian threat looms large before us, as was further demonstrated yesterday. The greatest danger confronting Israel, the Middle East, the entire world and human race, is the nexus between radical Islam and nuclear weapons....Hamas will not even allow the Red Cross to visit our kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, who has spent three years in captivity, cut off from his parents, his family and his people.

The contrast to these menaces is the unique character of Israelis. They are the ones whose forefathers and prophets lived in the same lands where they now live; they are the only nation linking their state’s existence with religion and history. It is Israelis who suffered from expulsions, pogroms, massacres, and a Holocaust which has no parallel in human history. Despite these hardships, it was Israelis who formed their own state.

The threat of Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas endangers this unique "existence", word used three times by Netanyahu in his speech. Each time, "existence" referred not only to community but to Israeli institutions: “It is clear that any demand for resettling Palestinian refugees within Israel undermines Israel’s continued existence as the state of the Jewish people....On a matter so critical to the existence of Israel, we must first have our security needs addressed....Our people have already proven that we can do the impossible. Over the past 61 years, while constantly defending our existence, we have performed wonders.”

Netanyahu’s Investment in "Peace"

But how to deal with the issue that, while Netanyahu might have an emphasis on "security", others would be looking for "peace"?

In a speech where every word was selected carefully, “peace” was used on 43 occasions, 15 more times than Barack Obama invoked it in his Cairo speech. The word “war” was used seven times, once to highlight Israel’s success in the 1967 Six-Day War, six times to depict the ugliness of wars in general.

In addition, there were two references to the religion of the Torah and the prophet. This was to show one party in the conflict, Israelis, demanding peace not just in their political debates but also in their prayers. This religious commitment put forth Israel’s honesty when “the root of the conflict was, and remains, the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own”. Israelis struggle for peace day and night while Arabs dismiss “the truth”.

Israel’s Pre-Conditions for A Two-State Solution under “The Road Map”

Netanyahu's headline statement, according to many in the Western media, was that he finally accepted "peace" through a two-state solution. However, the corollary of Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state is that Israelis will not accept the right of return of Palestinians who left their homes after 1948 war. His insistence, “The territory under Palestinian control must be demilitarized with ironclad security provisions for Israel,” means that Israel will control all borders, reserving the right to intervene, in the name of both Israeli and Palestinian securities, with forces surrounding the entire Palestinian territories. This may also include Israeli defense of Jewish settlements and some military outposts inside the West Bank.

When all this is taken into consideration, as well as Netanyahu’s declaration, “Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel,” it is clear that the Israeli Government’s demands are distant from the "two-state" conditions in United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338. In this case, the Road Map loses its meaning, even before parties agree on progress towards regional peace.

The Justifications of Preconditions

Netanyahu’s approach was a combination of religious belief and a “security” perspective to justify a position as necessary rather than illegitimate. He said:
The connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel has lasted for more than 3500 years. Judea and Samaria, the places where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, David and Solomon, and Isaiah and Jeremiah lived, are not alien to us. This is the land of our forefathers.

This subtle move put a “history” of thousands of years above international law to establish the “unique” character of Israel. And it also ensured that the security perspective was not forgotten. Netanyahu set this up through a clear distinction between Israel, with its values and culture, and those who would always remain outside that ideal:
But we must also tell the truth in its entirety: within this homeland lives a large Palestinian community. We do not want to rule over them, we do not want to govern their lives, we do not want to impose either our flag or our culture on them.

And because Palestinians can never be part of the unique character, with its inherent "peace", security's conditions must be placed upon them from the outset of negotiations: 
Without these two conditions (the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the demilitarization of the Palestinian state), there is a real danger that an armed Palestinian state would emerge that would become another terrorist base against the Jewish state, such as the one in Gaza… Without this, sooner or later, these territories will become another Hamastan. And that we cannot accept.

Once again, to give substance to the threat of the ideological-cultural outsider, Netanyahu invoked specific enemies, "In order to achieve peace, we must ensure that Palestinians will not be able to import missiles into their territory, to field an army, to close their airspace to us, or to make pacts with the likes of Hezbollah and Iran.”

The Future of Settlements

The problem for Netanyahu, entering this speech, is that all his definitions of a proper Israel and a potentially dangerous Palestine did not cover the in-between area: Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. Therefore, he began by trying to pull those settlements back into "Israel", not geographically but on a higher cultural ground:
The territorial question will be discussed as part of the final peace agreement. In the meantime, we have no intention of building new settlements or of expropriating additional land for existing settlements… But there is a need to enable the residents to live normal lives, to allow mothers and fathers to raise their children like families elsewhere. The settlers are neither the enemies of the people nor the enemies of peace. Rather, they are an integral part of our people, a principled, pioneering and Zionist public.

On a less exalted level, Netanyahu had said: No Freeze on Settlements (see the follow-up to the speech in Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington).

But, to return to Netanyahu's attempted higher plane of discussion, he never referred to "the West Bank".  Instead, he used "Judea and Samaria", the Biblical expression used for the West Bank, three times. Once more, an eternal religious invocation --- one which can only be claimed by Jewish people --- was deployed to keep open the issue of "legitimacy" in a disputed area.

Indeed, "Judaea and Samaria" provided the foundation for Netanyahu's claim of no connection between Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and terrorist attacks:
Those who think that the continued enmity toward Israel is a product of our presence in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, is confusing cause and consequence… The attacks against us began in the 1920s. We evacuated every last inch of the Gaza strip, we uprooted tens of settlements and evicted thousands of Israelis from their homes, and in response, we received a hail of missiles on our cities, towns and children… The claim that territorial withdrawals will bring peace with the Palestinians, or at least advance peace, has up till now not stood the test of reality.

Putting the Burden on the Palestinian Authority

Netanyahu was clear, "The Palestinians must decide between the path of peace and the path of Hamas. The Palestinian Authority will have to establish the rule of law in Gaza and overcome Hamas.”

Given Netanyahu's refusal to make any concessions on the Israeli position, it is obvious that there can be no positive answer from the other side. The Palestinian Authority's leader Mahmoud Abbas dismissed Netanyahu’s speech as “sabotaging” peace efforts. Nemer Hammad, an advisor to Mahmoud Abbas said, "Netanyahu’s speech had not brought anything new."

Netanyahu and his Cabinet members knew that this would be the reaction. The speech was not meant to open negotations but to frame them in such a way that they could not be started. Why? The Israeli Prime Minister's strategy is to buy time and then, in more favourable political condition, returns to talks based on his agenda of the economic development of the West Bank. As he said in another part of his speech: “I call on the Arab countries to cooperate with the Palestinians and with us to advance an economic peace. An economic peace is not a substitute for a political peace, but an important element to achieving it.”

Almost two weeks have now passed since Netanyahu's speech, responding to President Obama's original plan for Israeli-Palestinian talks.  The Plan B of a wider engagement between the US and Iran in the region, alongside or awaiting those talks, is now comatose after turmoil in Tehran. A Plan C, based on an anti-Iran rhetoric as well as changed relations with countries like Syria, may come into play.

All this, however, is speculation beyond immediate significance: the Netanyahu effect --- blending security, Israeli exceptionalism, and religion --- has been to take Plan A off the table.

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