It was all leading to this – the youth spent in the US, the education at MIT, the years honed as Israel’s top diplomat – speaking before the United States Congress, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu finally experienced his moment in the Beltway sun. Regaling his august audience with history lessons, military escapades and self-congratulatory rhetoric, Mr. Netanyahu held his listeners in rapt attention. Indeed, with 29 standing ovations, incessant clapping and over-the-top adulations, the Prime Minister turned the US Congress into a hysterical audience resembling an Oprah Winfrey’s give-away special. By the time his speech was over, Mr. Netanyahu had both democrats and republicans singing, “Bibi bibi bibi can’t you see, sometimes your words just hypnotize me.”
But the hypnosis will eventually wear off, and when it does congress will have to face an unpleasant reality: Mr. Netanyahu had sold them a bill of goods rotten to the core. And everybody can smell its pungent stench.
Mr. Netanyahu’s speech, despite his pontification on the dignity of democracy and disaster of Islamism (with a particular focus on Iran), was really about the peace process. Presenting the world his vision of a two-state solution, Mr. Netanyahu “generously” offered the Palestinians (on the condition they accept Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people) a demilitarized state in which Israel has sole sovereignty over a (“united and free”) Jerusalem, control over “major population centers” (i.e. settlements) deep in the West Bank, and a military occupation along the Jordan valley. He further explained there would be no right of return into Israel and that Hamas cannot be part of the Palestinian government.
The sad reality is that in speaking to Congress Mr. Netanyahu missed an amazing opportunity to show true leadership. He could have put forward creative, compassionate and daring proposals that would have, in true Zionist fashion, once again cast Israel as a proactive actor in history. Instead, he gave us unimaginative and stale ideas that are sure to keep the conflict going. One is reminded here of the immortal words recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus: “They make a desert and call it peace.”
Of course anyone who really knows Mr. Netanyahu knows that his peace overtures have the sincerity of a used car salesmen. Even Mr Netanyahu’s own father has admitted as much. In an underreported interview in the summer of 2009, shortly after Netanyahu gave his famous Bar Ilan speech (in which he outlined the exact same vision for a Palestinian state), Professor Benzion Netanyahu, the 100 year-old historian and father of the Prime Minister, told Israel’s Channel 2 news that his son does not support a Palestinian state. The elder Netanyahu, claimed that the prime minister personally told him he deliberately placed impossible conditions before the Palestinians:
“He supports such conditions that they (the Arabs) will never accept. That is what I heard from him. I didn’t propose these conditions, he did. They will never accept these conditions. Not one of them.”
Unfortunately, the words of the Prime Minster’s father, who himself believes there is no place for Arabs on Jewish land, have proven to be true. Netanyahu has chosen an extreme right-wing coalition and constrained by “their” interests has repeatedly placed insurmountable obstacles before the Palestinians. For the Palestinians, a people who are primed for statehood, whose anchor for a fair solution is already a compromise (West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza make up 22 percent of Mandate Palestine) and who have an alternative to the negotiated solution, the Prime Minister’s offer of a simulacrum of state will simply not due.
Beyond the unacceptable details of his vision, perhaps the most glaring flaw in Mr. Netanyahu’s speech was its utter lack of empathy and humility. Mr. Netanyahu rightly asked his audience to step into the shoes of Israelis under threat of rocket attacks, and to understand the painful compromises that peace necessitates, yet he showed no ability or desire to sympathize with the hardship and challenges faced by the Palestinians. This is a terrible mistake on the part of someone seeking to reach the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people.
Imagine instead if Mr. Netanyahu had actually said:
“To the Palestinians I say that while we can never fully understand what it’s like to be you, we recognize your historic pain, humiliation and anger. We recognize how difficult it will be to compromise on a dream that you believe is rightfully yours. We regret you have endured such hardship for so long and our role in creating your pain. We sincerely want to build a peaceful future together.”
Simple words that do not negate Israel’s positions yet reveal a completely different orientation towards peacemaking.
Of course such words would require a leader of moral courage: something Mr. Netanyahu spectacularly lacks. The US Congress may have been bamboozled by Mr. Netanyahu oratorical gifts, but the people of the region know better. They deserve better.