Netanyahu's words are more than just sound bytes. He is talking about the future of the Palestinian people.
Bibi, as his friends like to call him, is in for a rough ride. His bloated new government, a hodgepodge of ultra-rightists and disingenuous leftists, is bound to splinter once it faces its first serious test, be it dealing with the crippled Israeli economy or what's left of the Mideast "peace process."
Throughout the election campaign the hawkish Israeli leader has adamantly refused to acknowledge that a final Palestinian-Israeli settlement would see the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, a point that is generally accepted worldwide although there are nowadays a growing number of Palestinians, Israelis and others who might prefer a one-state solution for the two people.
Netanyahu would only talk about an "economic plan" that supposedly would help the Palestinians who have endured a cruel Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since 1967. Even the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip in September 2005 has failed to improve life in the crowded coastal region because of the Israeli blockade on land, sea and air. The Hamas "coup d'etat" in the Gaza Strip which overthrew Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority did not help, either.
However, in recent days Bibi has seemingly changed his tune, vaguely promising "a viable peace with all of Israel's Arab neighbors." Here, he chose, for example, not to acknowledge the Arab Peace Initiative which has been offered seven years ago by all the Arab governments and supported by many Muslim states elsewhere. (At the just-concluded Arab summit conference in Qatar, the Arab leaders have indicated that their initiative will not remain much longer on the table.)
Netanyahu is due in Washington in May to meet with President Barack Obama. The Israeli prime minister will face a very different White House than his predecessor did when meeting with Obama's predecessor.
Obama will have just returned from his European tour where EU and Turkish leaders will most certainly share their growing concerns over the lack of progress in the Middle East and their reservations over Israel's new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. The leader of the ultra-nationalist Israel Beiteinu party wants to administer an unprecedented oath of loyalty for all citizens, particularly the Palestinian Arabs inside Israel.
A 17-page report prepared by a bipartisan group of prominent Americans who have dealt with the Middle East, and recently submitted to Obama, has highlighted the seriousness of the situation in its eye-catching title: "A last Chance for a Two-State Israel-Palestine Agreement."
A copy of the report, which has yet to be disseminated widely, has been delivered to Obama by one of the signatories, Paul Volcker, who has been lately named senior economic adviser to the president.
Among the other 10 signatories are former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Senator Chuck Hagel, former Congressman Lee Hamilton, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and former World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn. All serve as senior advisors of the U.S./Middle East Project, whose president is Henry Siegman, the sponsor of the report.
They suggested that Obama needs "to flesh out the outlines of a fair, viable and sustainable agreement, based on principles that both Israel and the Palestinians have previously accepted" by endorsing U.N. resolutions 242 and 338, the Oslo Accords, the Roadmap and the 2007 Annapolis understandings.
They noted that any "new U.S. effort to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement may anger certain domestic constituencies," an obvious reference to the Israeli lobby. We do not , however, believe it is beyond the capability of an American president to explain to the American people why this long-running dispute must at long last be ended and why it will take much diplomatic heavy lifting and public expenditure to make it work."
Otherwise, it added, "in the end the stakes are too high to pursue a hands-off or arm's-length approach."
To maximize the prospects for success, the report suggested four steps: Present a clear U.S. vision to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which would include two states based on the June 4, 1967 borders "with minor, reciprocal, and agreed upon modifications;" a solution to the refugee problem that does not entail a general right of return but addresses "the Palestinian refugees" sense of injustice and provides them with meaningful financial compensation as well as resettlement assistance"; and Jerusalem as home to both capitals.
They also underlined the need for "a more pragmatic approach toward Hamas and a Palestinian unity government." They conceded that "direct U.S. engagement with Hamas may not now be practical, but shutting out the movement and isolating Gaza has only made it stronger and Fatah weaker."
Consequently, the United States should "cease discouraging Palestinian national reconciliation and make clear that a [Palestinian] government ... that commits to abiding by the results of a national referendum on a future peace agreement would not be boycotted or sanctioned" - a position that Hamas has long favored.
Whether Obama will go along with these suggestions is too early to tell, but Netanyahu needs to realize quickly that he cannot continue to ignore the facts on the ground.