Abdel-Moneim Said
The Daily Star (Opinion)
July 7, 2009 - 12:00am

US President Barack Obama's speech at Cairo University triggered a host of repercussions. Perhaps the most salient is that it compelled the Israeli government to declare its position, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did in his speech at Bar-Ilan University on June 14. The Netanyahu speech, in turn, triggered two general responses. Whereas the United States and the European Union welcomed the speech, the Arabs rejected it, with some Arab media insisting it had effectively sounded a death knell for the negotiating process.

The single most important Israeli gain from the speech was the wedge it drove between the US-EU response and the Arab one. The speech was pitched so the US and Europe could pick up on the acknowledgement of the two-state solution, it was tactically useful domestically, and it was a negotiating position that, Netanyahu said, marked a beginning not an end.

Contrary to the general opinion in the Arab world, I believe that we must take Netanyahu at his word and, rather than treating his speech as a final position, look at it as a springboard for attaining the goal of creating an independent Palestinian state, free of settlements, with its capital in East Jerusalem. Anything that conflicts with this aim, such as settlements or the demand to officially recognize Israel as a Jewish state, we should disregard for the time being, though with regard to the latter issue it is vital to insist that Israel guarantee its Arab citizens their full citizenship rights in order to allay the specter of a mass "transfer."

Since the Obama administration has come to power, Washington's attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict has steadily moved closer to that of Europe. Washington has been turning up the pressure on Netanyahu to freeze settlement activity and agree to a two-state solution. When European countries, Russia, China, India and other powers, echoed the call, Netanyahu's government began to fear a resurgence of the type of international isolation it thought had been consigned to the past.

Having correctly gauged the global temperature, Netanyahu, chose not to openly buck the tide. Instead, he hit upon a formula that sounded conciliatory but, in fact, was calculated to dismantle any Arab-Western-global consensus, minimize Israeli losses and buy time.

Netanyahu's speech was designed to send out mixed signals. On the one hand, he nodded in the direction of global opinion, admitting to the need for the creation of a Palestinian state. On the other hand, he refused to declare a complete halt to settlement activity, insisting upon the "right" to continue construction to meet the needs of "natural growth," which has always been the Israeli code for settlement expansion.

Netanyahu then added a long list of demands and conditions regarding the shape and powers of a prospective Palestinian state, topping them off with insistence on a unified Jerusalem and the need for the Palestinians to recognize, in advance, the Jewish character of Israel.

It might be useful, here, to recall the former Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin's positions regarding Israeli settlements, airports and land in the Sinai and then to recall that the Sinai was subsequently returned in full to Egypt. It is also useful to bear in mind that many Third World countries, upon reaching independence, started under conditions of less than full sovereignty which was eventually acquired as circumstances changed.

Those countries that welcomed the speech were taken aback by the hasty Arab reaction which appeared to suppose that Netanyahu had said this is where the process stops, with no prospect for a Palestinian state and no horizon for a freeze on settlements. Arab governments, political movements and the media dismissed the Israeli prime minister's acknowledgement of the need for a Palestinian state as a ruse aimed at impressing Western countries when the real thrust of Israeli strategy is to press ahead with settlement expansion and to force the question of the "Jewishness" of the state as a way of effectively forestalling the resumption of negotiations.

There is some validity to this position. After all, how a state defines itself is really its own concern. We have an Islamic Republic of Iran and other countries that are "Islamic." But never in the history of international relations has a state demanded others recognize its definition of itself above and beyond the recognition of its right to exist.

That Western and Arab states should have taken antithetic views over what is tactical and what is strategic in Netanyahu's speech is precisely what he was aiming for. What seems clear to me is that the Arabs must focus more clearly on their own tactics and strategies, including how the US and Europe fit into them.

By no means is this meant to suggest we agree to Netanyahu's terms. Rather, the point is that we must engage with him as though his speech was no more than a negotiating position staked out by a Likud hardliner whom we must coax step-by-step into being reasonable, as the Egyptians did with Begin.
Such a strategic handling of the Netanyahu speech is far removed from blanket rejection, which serves only to hand Europe and Washington to Israel on a silver platter. Through such a rational strategy of engagement we can build momentum to support the Palestinian cause. Above all, we must remain on guard against behaving in the way Netanyahu is banking on.


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