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Decoding Netanyahu's Speech

Shmuel Rosner is an editor and columnist based in Tel Aviv. He blogs daily at Rosner's Domain.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, speaking today in Bar Ilan University, has filled the glass of expectations; it is now up to the beholder to decide if glass is half-full or half-empty. Does one want to focus on Netanyahu's routine rejection of "the claim that withdrawal from territories will bring about peace," or prefer to be startled, even astonished, by Netanyahu's newly proven ability to connect the words "Palestinian" and "state" in one clear sentence?

Shrewdly, Netanyahu spent the previous couple of days behind the smoke screen of low expectations, sending defense minister Ehud Barak to announce as late as this morning that the speech will be "ambiguous." Thus, when the prime minister actually uttered the magic words, the obvious became momentous for Israelis. "Why didn't he do it three months ago?" was replaced by "He is sensible after all." Israelis, as public opinion polls have proven once and again, do not want to pick a fight with an American president over the twos issue about which the Obama administration is making a fuss: settlement freeze and support for a "two-state solution."

It is not because Israelis believe that a two-state solution is possible in the short term, but because Israelis tend to be pragmatic; they know that words are just words. A little more than a week ago, commenting here on President Obama's Cairo speech, I wrote:

Speeches, unlike literature, should not be judged as prose or poetry--but with Obama, we sometimes tend to forget that. The eloquence with which he conveys his message is almost always numbingly beautiful. Words, however, will not suffice; they will only be remembered as significant if they have consequences.

Netanyhau shares with Obama the quality of speaking well--maybe not as well, but good enough, and much better than all other Israeli politician-speakers. He understands the power of words, even if they are not backed up by action. If Obama wants him to say "two-state solution" so badly, then so be it.

On settlement expansion, the more practical question at hand, the prime minister didn't give much. He promised to refrain from establishing new settlements and from expanding the territory in which settlers can live, but he didn't agree to the total freeze of all settlement construction that the Obama administration asked for. "There is no intention in the meanwhile to create new settlements or expand existent towns, while not preventing the natural needs of settlers," he said. In essence, Netanyahu is simply following Israel's previous acceptance of the "road map" for peace--with Israel's documented reservations to the plan.

Netanyahu was also working to somewhat correct the possible misunderstandings originating in President Obama's speech. While the president was forceful in his condemnation of Holocaust denial, he was also playing to the hands of those in the Arab world claiming that Israel is a price they are paying for the wicked deeds done by others. While refraining from any reference to Obama's speech, there should be no doubt that Netanyhau was criticizing the president's sense of history: Jewish rights to the land of Israel do not depend on Jewish suffering in the Holocaust or previous atrocities. "The right to establish our sovereign state here, in the Land of Israel," he said, "arises from one simple fact: Eretz Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish People."

Netanyahu's opponents are already criticizing the many "conditions" he attached to the coveted acquiescence on the statehood issue. In recent days, newspaper columnists and pundits have been calling upon the prime minister to be "brave." But Netanyahu knew that any such bravery would probably end his career--either by leaning to far to the right and refusing to give an inch to President Obama, or by leaning to far to the left and abandoning the stated principals holding his coalition together. "They want him brave, and dead, after which they might give him a medal," a Netanyahu aide told me. Netanyahu, being a politician, understandably refused to play this game.

Netanyahu's most symbolic condition for Palestinian statehood, the condition of all other conditions, was that Arabs must recognize "Israel as a Jewish state." For him, Arab refusal to accept a Jewish Israel is what has prevented peace over the last 60 years. "When Palestinians are ready to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, we will be ready for a true final settlement," he promised. Netanyahu seems to believe that this demand will never be met, and is content to indefinitely postpone the establishment of a Palestinian state while he waits for it.

For the last three months Netanyahu, has been relentlessly criticized for his somewhat childish avoidance of the term "two-state solution." Just say it, and be done with it, critics demanded. Well, they got what they wanted. Maybe now it's time to turn the table and make the same argument toward Arab leaders: You don't like the term "Jewish state"? Just say it, and be done with it. If they refuse, Netanyahu might turn out to be right.

--Shmuel Rosner