When it comes to making speeches, there is no one like Bibi Netanyahu. His oratorical flair is especially pronounced during wartime when the national mood calls for a unifying force and dynamic spokesman. No one fits the bill like this silver-tongued politician whose English speaking skills can put average Americans to shame and whose “us and them” rhetoric has such mass appeal. I vividly recall those tense moments in a sealed room during the Gulf War watching Bibi, then Deputy Foreign Minister in Yitzhak Shamir’s government, explain on TV the plight of the beleaguered State of Israel. Bibi stood over a map of the Middle East and told CNN: “I have a size-ten shoe, American size-ten. I can walk on this map on the Arab world…Here’s Israel. I cover it with my thumb.” I was no fan of Bibi then any more than I am now, but for this spot on portrayal of our little country under attack I wanted to applaud him.
When the Gulf War was over, though, I and many like-minded Israelis learned the truth about this rising star and future Prime Minister of Israel: With his talent for stirring nationalist passions, his confrontational manner never changes and our state of war never ends. While Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin found ways to make political settlements with Egypt and Jordan, Bibi’s dogmatic approach to our conflict with the Palestinians has only kept it going indefinitely. He demonstrated his diplomatic rigidity in the late Nineties, when he had a mandate to implement the Oslo Accords and instead wasted his first term in office. To this day, Bibi still adopts a political hard line with the hope to keep his core support intact and stay in power.
In his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech Bibi took a step forward on the Palestinian front, acknowledging for the first time the prospect of a demilitarized Palestinian state. But ever since he has failed to make any headway with the Palestinians, using delaying tactics and dwelling on sticking points while blaming Abu Mazen entirely for the lack of progress in US-brokered negotiations.
On day four of Operation Protective Edge Bibi reversed his Bar-Ilan position, telling a press conference in Tel-Aviv that on account of the Hamas threat Israel under his watch can never agree to Palestinian sovereignty on the West Bank.
So, which one of Bibi’s declarations are we supposed to believe? Is he an advocate of the two-state solution, or is he dead against it?
The simple answer is that either in his Bar-Ilan speech or more recent press conference Bibi put his size ten in his mouth. The more vexing answer is that Bibi has no problem living with both declarations, the one giving lip service to the two-state option in a hypothetical manner of speaking and the other one backing the one-state status quo on a practical level. The drawback to his supposed “practical” worldview is that apart from the Bibi-Bennet-Lieberman axis, the rest of the world finds the current state of affairs unacceptable.
Bibi Netanyahu may be a master of doublespeak, but Israel in its all too familiar post-war mindset seeks clear answers. Specifically, which option is preferable, Abbas or Hamas? Following the recent cease fire, Netanyahu said he would agree to a new diplomatic initiative that would hinge on termination of the Palestinian unity government. Is this more flapdoodle, or is Bibi serious this time? Is he ready to back Abu Mazen (aka Abbas) with a grand gesture on his part, such as freezing construction in the West Bank settlements during negotiations? Or does he think that maintaining the Palestinian Authority’s proven record on security cooperation while expecting Abbas to break up his government doesn’t call for an Israeli concession?
Netanyahu has stated that he opposes preconditions such as Palestinian calls to negotiate on the basis of a return to the 1967 borders. He and his strong supporters in the nationalist camp have been harping on this point for many years. One may wonder what all the fuss is about, when UN Resolution 242 is clearly in Israel’s favor. The resolution, which was drafted five months after the Six Day War, does not call on Israel to withdraw from all the territories, but from “territories occupied in the recent conflict.”
Why did the UN Security Council agree to language that was supportive of Israel’s need for secure borders? One reason was that Egypt had given Israel a rationale for its pre-emptive strike in June 1967, as President Nasser more or less kicked the UN out of the Sinai Peninsula and then led a chorus of Arab threats to destroy Israel. Another reason was that Israeli Foreign Minister Aba Eben, himself a brilliant spokesman, made a very convincing case for Israel.
Abba Eben’s efforts at obtaining a resolution that recognizes Israel’s security needs was considered a major diplomatic breakthrough, before settlements on the West Bank came into the picture. Resolution 242 still forms the basis of a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. A territorial compromise will likely draw permanent borders close to the June ’67 lines, with modifications that take demographic changes into account. Some Israeli settlements will remain intact, others will be dismantled. Everyone knows what the score is. What’s taking Bibi so long to catch on? How many wars have to be fought; how much blood has to be spilled before he makes the right move?
The difference between the late Abba Eben and Bibi Netanyahu is that the former applied his oratorical skills to advance the Israeli position, while the latter uses his grandiloquence to make Israelis feel proud and patriotic. And since most of us voting age Israelis love being told how right we are, how morally superior we are, we are stuck with this speech maker whose only achievements as a leader came when he led us twice into Gaza.
Israel needs good spokesmen, and Bibi is the best we have. It’s a shame and a sin that he doesn’t use his rhetorical gift to actually lead this country, strengthen relations with our Western allies, build bridges with practical Arab leaders and form a real Protective Edge against the threat of radical Islam.