To thunderous applause before a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, Israeli Prime Minister delivered what amounted to a stunning rebuke of Barack Obama's vision of Middle East peace, just days after the U.S. president outlined his basic parameters for a two-state solution.
There was little, if anything, new in Netanyahu's speech: He reiterated his longstanding positions on borders (he won't go back to the 1967 lines), Jerusalem (he wants it to remain undivided), refugees (none can return to Israel), and security (a demilitarized Palestinian state, with Israeli troops "along the Jordan River"). He again demanded that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" -- a determination Abbas says is for Israelis themselves to make.
Although he said Israel would be "very generous on the size of a future Palestinian state," Netanyahu was uncompromising about just whose land he was talking about. As he put it, "In Judea and Samaria" -- religious names for the West Bank -- "the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. We are not the British in India. We are not the Belgians in the Congo."
Netanyahu also demanded that Abbas immediately "tear up" his recent unity agreement with Hamas, a movement he said was "the Palestinian version of al Qaeda."
However vague, these are not terms that any Palestinian leader concerned for his political survival can accept, and indeed, Abbas's side was quick to reject them in no uncertain terms. (One Palestinian official said Netanyahu's speech was "a declaration of war on Palestine.") Hamas, for its part, seems as intransigent as ever. There will be no negotiations for the foreseeable future.
Given their lack of faith in the "peace process" -- and Abbas's unwillingness to take any risks -- it now seems certain that the Palestinians will plow ahead with their statehood drive at the United Nations, a move that both Obama and Netanyahu vigorously oppose. Given how recent U.N. votes have gone, the United States will stand alone as the rest of the world denounces the Israeli occupation and embraces a Palestinian state. It may not change any facts on the ground, but it will further illustrate just how isolated America and Israel are becoming. And this may even be an optimistic scenario -- a third intifada may well break out, possibly leading to another round of destabilizing violence. Any shred of hard-won credibility the United States has regained in the Arab world as a result of the "Arab Spring" will be gone.
So is there any hope?
Even before Netanyahu's speech, Yossi Alpher, a devoted veteran of the peace process, had exhausted his well of ideas:
This writer has only one hope left. After this week, the speechmaking will be over for a while. All those Israelis, Americans and Europeans of good will who for months have evinced confidence that it is still possible to squeeze a viable peace process out of Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas, should now come to their senses. It's time to prepare not for a bilateral process but for a UN process. It's not too late to leverage the Arab UN initiative into a win-win dynamic for both Israelis and Palestinians that will transform a seemingly hopeless morass into a far more manageable two-state conflict.
Chances of that happening, given the display we just saw in Congress? About as close to zero as you can imagine.
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