Netanyahu in Congress: What to Talk About?

Do you know this old joke? The husband comes back home, opens the door, enters the bedroom and finds his wife with an unidentified guest. The two of them cover themselves in embarrassment and the husband starts yelling. He has a lot to say about what he’s done for his wife, about his loyalty to her, about his walking alongside her on unpaved roads.

He raises his voice even more, and the wife, as if pleading for her life, asks him to let her say something to him, to explain. It’s no good. He stops his shouting and leaves the room, slamming the door.

The lover, who has remained silent so far, says to the hostess, “How is it that he would not let you open your mouth?” And she answers him, “Silly boy, hasn’t that saved me? And then again, what could I possibly explain to him?”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted badly to appear for the second time in his life before the two houses of the U.S. Congress. In the previous House of Representatives, that was impossible because the Democratic majority conditioned his appearance on progress in the political process. Now, the Republicans are in the control of the House; it was Speaker John Boehner who exercised his right to invite a foreign leader to speak in front of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Netanyahu will show up at the end of next month.

Now, with the opportunity in his pocket, the question to be asked is what he can say there that hasn’t already been said before. He knows very well that there is no such thing as a free lunch, especially not in the America that came up with this cruel expression. Reiterating a general and basic willingness to compromise won’t be sufficient anymore and the principle of the two states has already been adopted. So what’s left, exactly?

A speech on Israel’s nonspecific readiness to meet Palestine halfway is the most convenient strategy for Netanyahu. Through it, he can say everything — except what his practical plan is that could be acceptable for the other side and for the world.

Netanyahu, who deserves a prize in any speech contest, is able to lecture very successfully about the insights he arrived at, and persuade whomever he talks to that he has crossed the well known Rubicon and that he sees from the height of the second floor of the prime minister’s office building what he was unable to see before.

He understands that reaching a solution with the Palestinians is a must. He understands the gravity of the demographic problem. He understands that it’s impossible to be content with just peace in return for peace, as in a peaceful coexistence, or with the plan of autonomy for the Arabs of Eretz Israel, as Begin thought possible in 1977, and that there is a need to give up some of the precious homeland territory. There’s no choice.

He understands that the issue of the refugees should be taken care of with caution and that the issue of Jerusalem won’t end with the Palestinians swallowing the fact that we’ve annexed an area 10 times larger than the Jordanian Jerusalem, for the 28 villages located there, and making sure it remains sacred and undivided.

He assures his interlocutors that he understands the exigency of the hour and sees himself as the only leader capable of making historic decisions which will change the neighborhood and his intention is to surprise everybody. Then he will talk about the security of the unstable region we live in and declare that any state arrangement, no matter how generous, won’t be at the expense of Israel’s security.

No Plan

Yet the problem is that he has already given this kind of speech and has already told this stuff to his political counterparts repeatedly over the past two years. No one will be excited about Netanyahu’s promise to surprise, and no one will fall from their chair at hearing him elaborate that he understands there is a price for peace and he’s ready to pay it. Consent to the establishment of a Palestinian state, while talking about Jerusalem remaining whole, continuation of rule in the Jordan Valley and continuing construction in the West Bank won’t warm the hearts of the members of Congress. The effect of Bar-Ilan Speech expired long ago and has been replaced with a feeling that things were said out of an intent to relieve political pressure rather than out of a far-reaching political vision.

Netanyahu cannot present his political plan before Congress. Firstly, it does not exist. Secondly, all his power is in introducing principles a la “security and peace”; the moment he presents a detailed political program (like a Palestinian state on 60-70 percent of West Bank territory, a municipal Jerusalem under full Israeli sovereignty, Israeli military rule inside of the West Bank for years to come, a solution for the Palestinian refugees problem that Israel is not a part of and so on), he will pose himself in splendid isolation from the whole world, at an hour when the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, on the contrary, presents a detailed political program acceptable to the countries of the world (maybe except for Iran and Libya) — including the U.S. and a smashing majority among Congress members from the both parties.

The Convincing of the Convinced

Since Netanyahu is far from a fool, there is no chance he’ll present a comprehensive political program that will cast Israel into a deeper isolation in one of the last Israel-friendly halls in the world.

To suffice with publicity moves? To make clear that we are good while others are bad? To say that we want to talk with the Palestinians and they are actually ones who are evading? To dedicate a quarter of an hour in the speech to the Iranian danger? To depict the south [of Israel] as being under fire? To speak about the close relationship between the U.S. and Israel and clarify that this is about deeply shared common values?

This is convincing the already convinced, and it is not for this purpose that he was invited to the U.S. — but to say something about the possibility of a breakthrough in statesmanship before what appears, rightly or wrongly, to be a serious political deterioration in September. The one who’s seeking to address the two houses of Congress has on himself a sort of burden of proof.

This is a completely different state of affairs from the head of state being on a visit to the U.S. and asked to speak before the two houses of Congress. In a situation like that, pretty words are quite enough. Rousing applause and a standing ovation is guaranteed in advance. But if you are the one who’s asking for the opportunity, you have to deliver the goods.

Just like any Zionist and right-wing leader who understands the demographic and political problem but is not ready to pay the price of agreement with the Palestinians, Netanyahu is approaching the option of a unilateral maneuver. This is an unwelcome possibility, but even this is preferable to maintaining the status quo. If he has on his mind to declare precisely in America a meaningful unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank and a series of a real alleviations for the Palestinians, that’s a fair matter to bother the Congress representatives with.

If Netanyahu decides to proclaim Israel’s readiness to call for another Madrid conference in order to open up a serious negotiation with our neighbors, that would definitely be a move justifying his speech. If Netanyahu says that he’s ready to accomplish the second stage of the “road map,” to carry out a significant retreat in the West Bank and to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state within temporary borders, when the president of the U.S. presents in parallel a vision for the permanent arrangement (a vision without which the Palestinians won’t agree to temporary borders), that would allow him to control the new political agenda.

But because Netanyahu is unable to present a permanent plan of his making, and if he doesn’t have in his possession either a “Madrid 2,” a second phase of the “road map,” or a unilateral process, he’s better off refraining from making a publicity speech. A futile address, even built magnificently, may annoy even the few people still willing to listen.

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