While Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on Sunday, in which he accepted the idea of a future demilitarized Palestinian state, seems to have gone over well in many quarters — the Obama administration called it positive movement, and the major American Jewish religious movements endorsed it (see Eric Fingerhut’s story on their reaction here) — there were a few notable exceptions:
- The Palestinians uniformly condemned it.
- The Zionist Organization of America, which represents a viewpoint held by many on the right-wing, categorized it as a dangerous, one-sided concession.
- In Israel, while some left-leaning commentators and groups applauded Netanyahu’s shift on Palestinian statehood, many called it too subtle and insufficient. In Ha’aretz, acclaimed novelist David Grossman said, "Netanyahu’s message is there will be no peace." He writes:
Once again, most Israelis can snuggle up around what appears to be a daring and generous offer, but what is in fact, as usual, a compromise between the anxieties, the weakness and the self-righteousness of the center just-to-the-right and the center a-little-left…
Other than acceptance of the two-state principle, which was wrung out of Netanyahu under heavy pressure and sourly expressed, this speech contained no tangible step toward a real change of consciousness. Netanyahu did not speak "honestly and courageously" – as he had promised – about the destructive role of the settlements as an obstacle to peace. He did not look the settlers in the eye and tell them what he knows full well: that the map of the settlements contradicts the map of peace. That most of them will have to leave their homes.
He should have said it. He would not have lost points in future negotiations with the Palestinians; rather, he would have allowed these negotiations to begin.
- In the Washington Post, columnist Harold Meyerson called Netanyahu’s idea of a Palestinian state little more than a collection of cantons:
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has at last acknowledged, with caveats, the need to establish a Palestinian state. Actually, Netanyahu’s Palestine is primarily caveats, with a dash of state thrown in for appearances’ sake.
In his speech last Sunday, the prime minister failed to address the continual growth of Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank, where close to 300,000 Israeli settlers live. The Palestine that Netanyahu envisions must steadily shrink to accommodate the growing number of Israeli settlers in its midst. It would be a collection of barely contiguous cantons.
By refusing to address the growth of the settlements, Netanyahu has avoided a fight with the hard-right forces in his governing coalition. Yet he has asked the leaders of the Palestinian Authority to accept a state whose contours no Palestinian could willingly accept. He demands a Palestine with no army, yet also demands that the Palestinian Authority suppress Hamas as a precondition for negotiations with Israel — something, as my American Prospect colleague Gershom Gorenberg has pointed out, that the very well-armed Israeli army has been unable to do.
In a conversation shortly after Netanyahu took office, one of the prime minister’s senior advisers told me that Netanyahu favored the creation of a Palestinian entity but didn’t want to use the word "state" because that implies all sorts of things to which Israel will not agree — such as a military, control of the electromagnetic spectrum, unfettered borders, etc. The English language and international community, he said, simply didn’t have a term for the quasi-state entity Netanyahu favored creating for the Palestinians.
If that’s true, then Netanyahu’s speech Sunday was a shift in language, not policy.
But in the Middle East, where language matters, even a linguistic shift may be enough to spark some sort of movement.