x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

'Niggling, begrudging and cowardly'

An unmistakable air of bad faith and backtracking surrounded the Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu's presentation on the two-state solution.

It would be tempting to praise Benjamin Netanyahu for finally uttering on Sunday those words he long dreaded - "Palestinian state". After all, this is a man who once said Yasser Arafat was "worse than Hitler" and proposed that revolvers be distributed to all adult Jewish males as a solution to the "terror" problem. Now in his second tenure as Israel's prime minister, Mr Netanyahu has tempered his inclination for demagogy. But these febrile times call for more than carefully parsed phrases and a belated recognition of the Palestinians' right to a state of their own; they call for brave, forward-looking leaders in the Middle East, ready to shed stale shibboleths and bankrupt ideas. By delivering a niggling, begrudging and ultimately cowardly speech on Sunday, the 59-year-old Mr Netanyahu missed a historic opportunity to join the ranks of those leaders. Instead of proving he is a beacon for the future, he showed he was a relic of the past. It was the Old Bibi who danced around the issue of talks with the Palestinians, saying he was prepared for direct negotiations without preconditions - then proceeding to enumerate conditions required to conclude a deal. He equivocated on the issue of West Bank settlements, qualifying his pledge not to build new settlements with the proviso: "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." With this caveat, it would not be surprising to wake up tomorrow and find Israeli bulldozers building roads in the West Bank so settler families can live "normal lives". An unmistakable air of bad faith and backtracking surrounded Mr Netanyahu's presentation on Sunday. In fact, little was new. Five of the prime minister's predecessors - including two from his own party - have already voiced their conditional support for a Palestinian state. A demilitarised Palestine? It was set forth in guidelines agreed to during the Clinton administration and in the 2001 Taba talks. Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state? It occurred in 1998 - a fact Mr Netanyahu omitted in favour of yet another harangue against Hamas. Mr Netanyahu's speech amounted to a belated attempt to grab at Barack Obama's coattails in the wake of the US president's speech in Cairo on June 4. Unfortunately, the wan result made Mr Netanyahu's immediate predecessors seem like models of Churchillian boldness. Even Ariel Sharon - the father of the settlements - had the mettle to use the word "occupation" in a 2005 speech to the Israeli parliament. On Sunday, Mr Netanyahu never did. Plainly, his speech was not one he wanted to give. But he is said to have feared that Mr Obama's Cairo speech was part of a plan to placate the Arab and Muslim world at Israel's expense and decided to get on the record with an address of his own. Unfortunately, though, the prime minister also did not take a page from the speech, in which the US president acknowledged to his audience the chastening lessons of America's invasion of Iraq and western distortions of Islam. Instead, he offered a tutorial on the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict that was breathtaking in its one-sidedness - no mention of Palestinian suffering, no elaboration on Jerusalem's importance to Muslims. Furthermore, while Mr Netanyahu demanded Palestinian acceptance of the Jewish state, he did not see fit to repudiate the platform of his own Likud party, which calls for a "Greater Israel" between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan. This was not the speech of a visionary keen to build bridges; this was the speech of a politician manoeuvring to preserve the status quo. Rather than reiterate familiar platitudes about peace-loving Israelis, an Israeli leader attuned to the historical moment would have disabused Israelis of the illusion that there is an alternative to trading land for peace. He would have reminded his own people of the price of peace - namely, how they would have to adjust their lives to accommodate a Palestinian state the majority of Israelis say they want. Israel's lucrative security industry would suffer and jobs would be lost. An equal distribution of water would force Israelis to change their consumption habits. The cheap land and large homes that the territories provide would no longer be conveniently available. Such a reckoning would have demanded a kind of political courage that Mr Netanyahu, however, proved incapable of on Sunday. Had he done otherwise, he might have been likened to Richard Nixon, one of the most commie-hating politicians in US history who, in a historic about-face, normalised relations with the People's Republic of China in 1972. Mr Netanyahu will no doubt cite criticisms of his speech by members of his own party as evidence of his daring. Doubtless, too, he will parry administration demands to take action by saying his governing coalition has been pushed to the breaking point already. "Give me time," he will say. Yet Mr Obama may not be inclined to cut Mr Netanyahu slack. His administration is populated by officials who know the Israeli leader well. Dennis Ross, the former US Mideast peace envoy and currently the special state department envoy, describes Mr Netanyahu in his 2004 memoir as bungling, duplicitous, impulsive and - in meeting with President Clinton - "nearly insufferable". In short, his political survival may not be among the top five items on the Obama administration's Middle East agenda. If Mr Netanyahu needs any further reason to squirm, he need only be reminded that while he was delivering his speech, Mr Obama was not listening with bated breath; he reportedly was playing golf. In general, Mr Netanyahu and much of the Israeli political establishment also do not appear to realise that business as usual may be over in Washington. The old playbook - stall, buy time, change the subject, placate with high-flown promises one has no intention of keeping - may not be out of print, but it is certainly out of style. Sunday night showed just how much. cnelson@thenational.ae