Israeli Prime Minister's Speech to Inject Zionist Perspective

Israeli Premier Binyamin Netanyahu will speak today.
Israeli Premier Binyamin Netanyahu will speak today. (Pool - Reuters)

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By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 14, 2009

JERUSALEM, June 13 -- When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu delivers a major foreign policy address Sunday, the setting will be part of the message: He will speak at Bar-Ilan University, which was founded in 1955 to unite secular learning with religious Zionism.

Advisers to Netanyahu and Israeli political analysts say the speech will be a response to President Obama's address to Muslims this month at Cairo University. Netanyahu, they say, wants to inject a Zionist "narrative" into a discussion that he believes was tilted in Obama's speech toward the Arab version of events.

While Netanyahu's remarks are expected to range across issues, including Obama's demand for a freeze on Jewish settlements and the U.S. president's call for the establishment of a Palestinian state, they will center on Netanyahu's assertion that Arabs must recognize Israel as a state for the peace process to succeed.

The point is not a condition for the start of peace talks with the Palestinians or other Arab nations, Netanyahu's advisers have said. But just as Israel is being asked to acknowledge the Palestinian identity of a neighboring country under the "two-state solution" advocated by Obama and European leaders, Netanyahu believes that an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict requires a similar acknowledgment from the other side, they say.

"They need to cross the Rubicon of a Jewish state," said a Netanyahu adviser involved in preparing the speech. "That will be necessary for an agreement, because then you know the conflict is over."

The run-up to Netanyahu's speech has been dominated by debate in the media and in political circles about how he will address Obama's call for a settlement freeze and whether he will endorse the establishment of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu and his governing coalition oppose both ideas, and they say that security concerns still make creation of a Palestinian state and a withdrawal from the West Bank too risky. That argument is likely to be bolstered by the reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose support of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and pursuit of nuclear technology are considered among Israel's chief threats.

In announcing plans for the address, Netanyahu said it would spell out "our principles for achieving peace and security" while "attempting to reach maximum understanding with the U.S. and our friends around the world."

Coalition members and others said after meetings with Netanyahu that they do not expect major concessions to the United States and that any endorsement of a Palestinian state will rest on a long list of conditions. Netanyahu has said that any Palestinian entity would have to be demilitarized, not be allowed to control its airspace, and lack other powers traditionally associated with a modern state.

The aim is not to settle all issues but to "articulate his vision of how Israel wants to move forward in the peace process," Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said.

Obama's Middle East envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell, was in the region this past week promoting the president's ultimate aim of a regional Arab-Israeli peace. Mitchell arrived in Damascus, the Syrian capital, on Friday night.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will not agree to restart peace negotiations unless Israel agrees to a settlement freeze. Palestinian officials say that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would undermine the status of Israel's Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the population, and also would prejudge the fate of Palestinian refugees living in other Arab countries. Any resolution of the "right of return" for those refugees, Palestinians say, should be part of final negotiations.

But Netanyahu's speech will also try to respond more directly to Obama's effort in Cairo to "reset" U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world. While the speech was credited in Israel for reaffirming the alliance between the two countries and for strong language about Holocaust denial, Israeli analysts said that it also seemed to interpret key issues from an Arab perspective.

It associated Israel's creation directly with the Holocaust, for example, rather than acknowledging the long-standing Zionist efforts to provide a Jewish homeland. It also dated the problems of Palestinians to Israel's creation in 1948 without mentioning Arab rejection of a proposed partition plan and other events that Israelis regard as fundamental to the conflict.

Gerald Steinberg, chair of Bar-Ilan's political science department, said Netanyahu will probably use language on settlements and Palestinian statehood that will leave room for negotiation. But the broader message may well dominate.

"Obama said a couple of things that were disturbing, and I expect Netanyahu to set the record straight on that," Steinberg said. "The heart of the speech is going to be the narrative -- of accepting the right of the Jewish people to sovereign equality. If that issue has not changed, then there is no point in moving forward."


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