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Netanyahu answers Obama

Netanyahu supports a "demilitarized" Palestinian state and won’t stop existing settlement growth

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. Earlier on Sunday, Bibi Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, made a major policy speech which was purported to be a response to Obama’s Cairo speech. In it he made some startling announcements—or he made no announcement all, depending on who you talk to. The Israeli right is saying he abandoned his leadership of the nationalist cause and he’s given in because he accepted the existence of a Palestinian state. And the left is saying he accepted nothing, ’cause he wants a demilitarized Palestinian state, which most Palestinians wouldn’t agree to. The White House has said his speech was a step forward.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (VOICEOVER TRANSLATION): I have already stressed the first principle, recognition. The Palestinians must clearly and unambiguously recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. The second principle is demilitarization. The territory under Palestinian control must be demilitarized with ironclad security provisions for Israel. Without these two conditions, there is a real danger that an armed Palestinian state would emerge that would become yet another terrorist base against the Jewish state, such as the one in Gaza. Therefore we ask our friends in the international community today, led by the United States, for what is critical to the security of Israel: clear commitments that in a future peace agreement the territory controlled by the Palestinians will be demilitarized, namely, without an army, without control of its airspace, with effective security measures to prevent weapons smuggling into the territory, real monitoring and not what is happening today in Gaza today. And clearly it is obvious that the Palestinians will not be able to forge military pacts.

JAY: Now joining us to tell us what she thinks of the Netanyahu speech, I’m joined by Phyllis Bennis with the Institute of Policy Studies and the author of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. Phyllis, tell us what do you think. Is this a step forward? Or what did this speech mean, if much at all?

PHYLLIS BENNIS, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Well, I think what it says is that the ball is now very definitely in President Obama’s court, not in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s court. The speech had nothing new of substance. He did use the words "Palestinian state," something that the Obama administration has been pressing him on. But as you mentioned, Paul, this was not anything remotely resembling an independent sovereign state. It would be a state that would be forcibly demilitarized, not the question, for example, like Costa Rica, which chose to demilitarize, chose quite wisely, I think, not to invest money and resources in an army, in a military. This would not be that situation. This would be imposed demilitarization, meaning that the Palestinians would not be allowed to have the right of self-defense. They would not have the right to control their own airspace. They would not have the right to control their own borders. That was what Prime Minister Netanyahu put forward as the basic requirements that if those were accepted, then they could talk about the possibility of a Palestinian state.

JAY: Right now the Israeli right is saying that once a country’s a country, whether it agreed to be demilitarized or not, what’s to stop it from then becoming militarized? And this is like one step away from a militarized Palestinian state.

BENNIS: Well, first of all, what it means is: is it independent or not? What stops it from becoming militarized is Israeli control of the airspace, if the US allows them to do that; Israeli control of the borders, if the US allows them to do that. This is what we’re talking about here. This is not equality; this is not sovereignty; this is not self-determination; this is not an independent Palestinian state. As Prime Minister Netanyahu put it himself, both states, meaning Israel and a so-called Palestinian state, would have their own flag and their own anthem. What they would not have is equality and—what they would not have is equality and equal independence, equal sovereignty, equal rights of self-determination.

JAY: Now, the speech had a lot to do with economic development. Bibi calls for Arab countries to come invest in Israel and Palestine. There’ll be tourism. And there’s this sort of vision of an uneconomic growth, and that’s where the Palestinians should see their future if, quote-unquote, only they’ll live in peace. What do you make of that vision?

BENNIS: Well, this is the same thing that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been saying all along, that his priority is not a Palestinian state. Yes, he used the words this time to pacify President Obama—hopefully, he didn’t pacify him, but that was his goal. But he did not move away from his long-standing position that the only obligation Israel has is to help improve the living standard of Palestinians on the West Bank—not those in Gaza, about whom he said nothing, not those even living in Arab East Jerusalem, who are not considered full citizens of Israel, but solely those on the West Bank. Now the problem with this, and this is where it gets very dangerous, there’s the danger that if President Obama drops the ball, if he does not take the next step of holding Israel accountable for what the Obama administration wants Israel to do, such as a settlement freeze, meaning, for example, they might choose to condition some or all of the $3 billion a year in military aid to Israel on Israeli compliance with something like a settlement freeze. That would be one very narrow, small first step. But the problem that we face here is that what President Obama is also hinting at is that he will push for normalization of relations between Israel and all the Arab states in return for these—what I consider fake concessions on the part of Israel. If President Obama says that it’s a huge concession that Netanyahu use the words "Palestinian state", and now the Arab governments should answer that concession with a concession of their own, meaning normalized relations, then we’re in trouble, because using the word "Palestinian state" is not a concession at all. What President Obama did quite dangerously in his important speech in Cairo was to refer to the Arab peace plan that was developed in Saudi Arabia in 2002 and say that the Arab governments should begin implementing that right away: they should begin the process of normalizing relations with Israel; they should exchange ambassadors; they should begin trade. What he left out was the crucial preconditions for that move by the Arab governments. Specifically, the Arab peace initiative says that normalization of relations economic, political, diplomatic, any other kind, normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab governments can only take place after—after—Israel withdraws to the 67 borders, ends the settlement process, solves the problem of Palestinian refugees’ right of return in accordance with international law, and deals with sharing Jerusalem. Then there can be normalization. What President Obama did was to skip those steps and ask the Arab governments to go directly to the question of normalization. And that’s what Prime Minister Netanyahu was calling for today when he said we want to open new negotiations with all the Arab states. Of course he does. He wants to normalize relations with the Arab states on the backs of the Palestinians.

JAY: There’s an interesting poll today in Haaretz. Apparently, one in five Israelis do not think that a nuclear-armed Iran is a threat to Israel. I know there is something like 52 percent in one poll and 59 percent in another poll said they would support some preemptive action against Iran. But still it’s a very significant split in Israeli public opinion whether Iran really is some kind of a threat. And Netanyahu’s strategy over the last while and what is likely to be so going forward, to really make no concessions at all on the question of the Palestinian state and shift the conversation over to Iran, in terms of the new elections, in terms of where Israeli public opinion is, and in terms of the Obama administration, do you think he can shift the whole conversation away from the two-state issue to the Iranian issue?

BENNIS: Well, he’s had a lot of support, particularly among his own far-right governing coalition, for doing just that. The poll that came out in Haaretz today was actually the opposite of what you said. Only 20 percent did say that they thought Iran would try to destroy Israel if it had a nuclear weapon.

JAY: Yeah, that’s what I thought I said. One in five—yeah, what you said is what I meant.

BENNIS: One in five said that Iran would try to destroy Israel. That means four out of five think it would not. And yet almost 60 percent, almost six out of ten, say that they would support a preventive strike, meaning an illegal strike against Iran, even if it didn’t threaten to destroy Israel. It’s a quite extraordinary contradiction. But Netanyahu has gained a great deal of credibility at home by fanning the flames of fear about the Iranian nuclear program. And in this he found, of course, a very ready partner before he was prime minister in President George Bush. And what he’s hoping for is that President Obama will follow the same pattern. This is where there’s some ambiguity in the Obama administration. The administration has made clear its intention to open a dialog with Iran. And President Obama restated that in his speech two weeks ago in Cairo when he said that he was welcoming the possibility of new negotiations with Iran with no preconditions and based on mutual respect. That’s exactly the language that the Iranian leadership, as well as many Iranian intellectuals, have used to describe what they want: negotiations based on mutual respect. On the other hand, many in Congress and some in the administration itself have continued to say that any negotiations must be matched by leaving all options on the table—not very subtle code words for leaving the possibility open of a military strike by the US against Iran. And Israel has declared over and over again that if the US does not succeed in their definition of disarming Iran, despite the fact that all of the US intelligence agencies agree that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program, that they will feel that they have the right to attack Iran and will expect the United States to support that attack. That’s the problem that the Obama administration is grappling with right now. How far are they willing to push the Netanyahu administration, which, frankly, could collapse if the contradiction goes further? Today, Netanyahu challenged his own political base by using the magic words that Obama had asked for: he used the words "Palestinian state"—of course without substance, but he used the words. And some of Netanyahu’s supporters are already pulling back from that. Now, if he goes further, if President Obama goes further and actually begins the process of holding Israel accountable, for example by conditioning the $3 billion in military aid that the US will give Israel this year on compliance with a settlement freeze, just as one example, there will be an even bigger divide within the Israeli public. If Netanyahu puts himself in a position where he is challenging the US in a more profound way, there could be a break in the government coalition, and there could be a call for new elections. What happens after that could make things even more complicated, because a new prime minister would very likely be somebody like Tzipi Livni from the so-called centrist Kadima Party, who would position herself immediately as Barak Obama’s best friend, a huge relief after the extremism of Bibi Netanyahu, but without making any substantive changes on the actual policies vis-à-vis Iran or vis-à-vis settlements on the ground. She would just use much nicer language.

JAY: Well, Netanyahu’s drawn the line in the sand, which is a demilitarized Palestinian state, which he has to know is unacceptable to the Palestinians. So the ball’s in Obama’s court. Does he push Israel on this point or not? I guess we don’t know that.

BENNIS: I don’t think we know that. I think that the Obama administration is quite likely to accept the idea of a demilitarized state. There are some Palestinian diplomats who have actually said they would accept such a thing. The problem is I don’t think they bring with them the Palestinian population. They would not be speaking for anything close to a majority of Palestinians. Ironically, I do think that many Palestinians, particularly those who have been active in recent years in building nonviolent protest movements across the West Bank that have been protesting the creation of the apartheid wall, that have been protesting the checkpoints that are preventing normal life, even as normal as it could ever be under occupation, but is presenting all motion, all movement in the occupied territories. These movements are thoroughly nonviolent. They’re grounded in nonviolence as a strategy. But as a result, I think that there are many Palestinians who would want their state to be nonviolent and to be a neutral state without an army, a demilitarized state. But they are not willing to accept someone else imposing that on their ostensibly independent state. First you gain independence; then you make your own decision about disarmament or not.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Phyllis. I guess the ball’s back in Obama’s court. We’ll see how serious he is on these settlement issues. Thanks for joining us, and thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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