After weeks of hand wringing, political step dancing and increasingly pointed pressure from the Obama administration, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu last night unveiled his foreign policy agenda that was as significant for what he didn't say as for what he did.
That, Israeli commentators said, was a major step for the hawkish Israeli leader who has long opposed the idea. But it was a small step for a peace process in which Israel has already embraced the two-state solution.
"It was one small step for the peace process, one giant leap for Binyamin Netanyahu," Maariv commentator Ben Caspit wrote today. "Even the most difficult of treks has to start somewhere. Yesterday, at Bar-Ilan University, Netanyahu took his first small and hesitant step. Welcome, Mr. Prime Minister, to the twentieth century. The problem is that we’re already in the twenty first."
In the speech, Netanyahu laid out the conditions under which he would accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel: The nation must have no military. Palestinians cannot control their air space. Palestinians must agree that no refugees can return to ancestral homes they left in 1948 that are now inside Israel. Palestinians must explicitly recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Palestinians must give up on the idea of having any part of Jerusalem as their capital. Palestinians must not forge military pacts with any other nations.
"The truth has to be said: this is not the way one makes peace," Caspit wrote. "When one comes with innumerable conditions, and if and if, and only if, and then perhaps, and only in the distant future, and only when they recognize, and accept and prove — one will only get an angry and humiliated Palestinian partner. True, we are in the right. We always were. But everyone who was sitting in Bar-Ilan has already known this for quite a while. An historic peace to be forged between such bitter rivals will not be reached when both sides are also so right. Peace is forged with generosity, not righteously. It will be achieved when each side recognizes that also the other has a case, and that painful concessions are necessary. Not just talk."
As Nahum Barnea wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth, the speech was, in many ways, primarily directed at the US: "Netanyahu’s speech was meant for one pair of ears – the most prominent and famous pair in the world: the ears of Barack Obama."
Repeating a talking point from Netanyahu's aides, Caspit said that the PM had "finally crossed the Rubicon of the Palestinian state, fashionably late and with a sour expression on his face, but one does eventually get used to the cold waters. Especially when its so hot outside the water. Let us put it in a footnote: Benjamin Netanyahu leaped into the stormy waters yesterday, and wisely so. A long stormy ocean still awaits him."
Commentators also took note of what Netanyahu did not say:
He did not explicitly mention the Road Map for Middle East Peace, the document that lays out the formula for a two-state solution, including explicit calls for Israel to immediately halt all settlement construction in the West Bank.
Netanyahu did not mention dismantling of the smaller, renegade outposts usually set up by zealous Jewish activists opposed to the establishment of any Palestinian state in the West Bank.
The PM did not talk about a settlement freeze and implicitly reasserted his position that Israel will continue to build new homes for Jewish settlers in existing settlements. This is something Obama has made clear is unacceptable to his administration.
Netanyahu, commentators also noted, did not talk about the Golan Heights. This was seen as an oblique opening to Syria and a signal that, despite his repeated vows not to compromise on this issue, Netanyahu is willing to talk about land-for-peace with Syria.
Palestinian leaders, as might be expected, immediately rejected Netanyahu's speech as a non-starter.
The bigger question is: What will Obama do next?
"You have President 'Yes We Can' squaring off against Prime Minister 'No You Won't' and the only way this is going to be resolved is if the two are willing to give," said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator and author of "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Middle East Peace."
"Obama's prestige is on the line," Israeli political commentator Yossi Alpher, "particularly with regard to the settlements."
The White House issued a quick statement calling the speech "an important step forward."
Now it will be up to Obama to decide how to deal with an Israeli PM who has gone part-way towards meeting his calls for change.
Israeli FM Avigdor Lieberman will be in DC this week to meet with Obama administration officials.
It will be interesting to gauge the tenor and tone of those talks.
(AP photo/Bernat Armangue)