November 21, 2018

Netanyahu’s Latest Speech — Obama’s Next Opportunity

Now that Arab leaders and Western pundits have expressed their disapproval of Netanyahu’s policy speech of last Sunday, it is time for peace visionaries to point out the opportunities that the speech has opened to the international community, especially to President Obama.

A large portion of Netanyahu’s speech was no doubt a reaction to Obama’s landmark speech in Cairo, a week earlier, in which he addressed the Muslim world and sent some chilling messages to the Israeli prime minister. No one can hide the fact that most Israelis, including seasoned peace activists, felt less than buoyant about the Cairo speech.

There are two main reasons.

Firstly, it made Israelis wonder whether the Obama administration is aware of the fierce, subterranean “battle of intentions” that has been preventing the peace process from moving forward in the last few years. Everyone knows, of course, that Palestinians view settlement construction as the litmus test for Israel’s intentions vis-à-vis a future Palestinian state; it is constantly drummed up in the media. Yet not everyone knows that Israelis, too, have a litmus test; they view Palestinian textbooks, TV programs and sermons to be the litmus test of Palestinian intentions vis-à-vis the future of Israel. A society that teaches its youngsters to negate its neighbor’s legitimacy, any reasonable observer would agree, cannot be serious about respecting a peace accord as permanent.

This understanding did not radiate from Obama’s Cairo speech, which had crisp and stern words to say about Israeli settlements but hardly a word about Palestinian denial and incitement.

“The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” the president said. “It is time for these settlements to stop.” The hoped-for reciprocal sentence — “It is time for Palestinian incitement to stop” — was conspicuously absent. Commentaries on Israeli TV noted, disappointedly, that not a single responsibility was assigned to the Palestinian Authority.

While the majority of Israelis understand that massive uprooting of settlers may be a necessary price to pay for a lasting peace, few if any are willing to engage in a civil strife for anything less than a lasting peace. Even the harshest opponent of the settlement movement would not support the emergence of a sovereign neighbor, rocket range away, that is unwilling to invest in education for a lasting peace.

But now that Obama’s overtures have won the attention of the Muslim world, perhaps even its trust, it is time for him to outline concrete steps toward Middle East peace. A call for a simultaneous freeze on both Israeli settlements and Palestinian incitement, clad in timetables and monitoring methods, would invite both sides to an equal honesty test, a test that is crucial to jump start the “new beginning” that Obama called for in Cairo.

Secondly, Obama’s rationale for Israel’s legitimacy began with the Holocaust, not with the birthplace of Jewish history. “The aspiration for a Jewish homeland,” he said, “is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” This may have been intended as a jibe at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his obsession with Holocaust denial, but it was taken by many Israelis as a distortion of history and an assault on their identity as a nation. Basing Israel’s legitimacy on the Holocaust plays into the hands of Arab rejectionists who see Israel as a foreign entity to the region, hastily created to soothe European guilt over the Holocaust at the expense of the indigenous Palestinians. Israelis, and in fact most Jews, consider themselves equally indigenous to the biblical landscape. Accordingly, the formation of Israel, though accelerated by the Holocaust, is considered a historical and moral imperative based on a 2,000-year continuous quest to rebuild a national homeland.

Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University reminded the world of this historical perspective and further opened the door for Obama to use history as an instrument of peace.

Notably, while Netanyahu made recognition of Israel’s historic right an axiomatic part of any peace agreement, he did not insist on Arabs recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state.” Rather, he called for “recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.” This appeal to nationhood and peoplehood, rather than religion, amounts to an appeal for recording the trust deed that Jews have to their birthplace, while leaving the cultural character of the state to be determined by its citizens. It is a litmus test of Arab intention, rather than an imposition on Arabs’ rights; what one teaches as historical imperative is what one expects the future to entail.

This now creates a golden opportunity for Obama to join Netanyahu in a call for a mutual recognition of the historical claims of both sides as equally indigenous, hence equally deserving a permanent status in the region. An affirmation of “Israel’s historical right to exist” is what moderate forces in the region need to hear from Obama, and it is also what the Israeli public wants to hear as it prepares for peace-bound sacrifices.

The magic words “historical right” have the capacity to change the entire equation in the Middle East. They convey a genuine commitment to permanence and can therefore invigorate the peace process with the openness and good will that it has been lacking thus far.

A presidential call for affirmation of this right would turn Obama’s speech in Cairo into a huge leap forward in the quest for peace and understanding in the region.

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, named after his son. He is a co-editor of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004).