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Netanyahu's Aipac speech: paying lip-service to peace

The Israeli prime minister's intransigence makes peace talks implausible.

In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) last night, the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, appeared to give a two-fingered salute to the Obama administration, which has pushed for a freeze on settlement-building with the hope of peace talks with the Palestinians resuming.

"Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital," Netanyahu told the powerful pro-Israel lobby. "All these neighborhoods are within a five-minute drive from the Knesset . . .

"Everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, building in them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution."

He added:

Israel is unjustly accused of not wanting peace with the Palestinians. Nothing could be further from the truth. My government has consistently shown its commitment to peace in both word and deed.

From day one, we called on the Palestinian Authority to begin peace negotiations without delay. I make that same call today. President Abbas, come and negotiate peace.

It is a deliberately reductionist comment, and one that is likely to stoke anger.

Lest we forget, Netanyahu's proclaimed backing for a two-state solution comes with conditions that are unacceptable to the Palestinians. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz explained, a year ago:

Netanyahu seeks to deny the Palestinians four rights of any sovereign state: control of its airspace; control of its electromagnetic spectrum; the right to maintain an army and to sign military alliances; and, most importantly, control of the border crossings where arms and terrorists could pass. Netanyahu believes Israel must retain all of these.

In a landmark address in June last year, he said for the first time that he supported a two-state solution -- but one that denied the right of return to Palestinian refugees ("any demand for resettling Palestinian refugees within Israel undermines Israel's continued existence as the state of the Jewish people") and gave Israel an undivided Jerusalem (the Jerusalem law was deemed at the time to be in contravention of international law). He also rejected the suggestion that settlement-building be suspended.

At the time, many foreign leaders expressed cautious approval at the prospect of dialogue reopening, although it was also widely accepted -- within the Arab world and without -- that these terms were not viable.

Sadly, Netanyahu's speech to Aipac shows very little movement. Responding to his June 2009 address, Ben Caspit wrote in the Hebrew-language paper Ma'ariv:

If Netanyahu had the slightest belief that there was some chance that the Palestinians would be capable of acquiescing to any of the conditions he had set, he would have refrained from saying what he did.

This was borne out last night. While paying lip-service to diplomacy, the Israeli prime minister remains unwilling to make the concessions necessary to make real progress.

As the diplomatic spat between Israel and the US rumbles on, Barack Obama would do well to capitalise on the momentum gained by the successful passage of the health-care bill to push for a freeze on settlement-building, and substantive peace talks.

As many commentators have noted, this is the only way to shore up security for Israeli civilians, and give Palestinian civilians the "security, dignity and peace" that Netanyahu claims to desire.

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Tags:Israel