In his speech to the United States Congress last week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was addressing three target audiences. The least important for him was the Palestinians.
Netanyahu presumably understands that there is virtually no likelihood of a renewed peace process with the Palestinians in the months between now and September. Not only does the Israeli prime minister not offer enough to the Palestinians. The same President Mahmoud Abbas who turned down Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s far-reaching offer in September 2008 and essentially refused until now to negotiate with Netanyahu is not about to back off from his encounter with the United Nations in the fall. Hence, even though Netanyahu ostensibly presented a coherent opening negotiating position and invited the Palestinian leadership to respond to his "generosity"–an invitation to negotiate that, in striking contrast, was not forthcoming from US President Barack Obama in his speeches of the past ten days–serious talks were not Netanyahu’s purpose.
Rather, Netanyahu sought primarily to recruit the support of American and Israeli public opinion. Judging by the unusual if not ludicrous reception Congress gave him and the findings of the latest Israeli opinion polls, he succeeded. He even managed in Congress to tone down his antagonism toward Obama, on the correct assumption that no one in Israel or America likes to see the kind of threat to the special relationship that Netanyahu displayed so arrogantly in his latest Oval Office appearance with the American president.
For whatever it’s worth given the barren negotiations arena, Netanyahu has indeed moved closer to the Israeli consensus on a number of issues: a viable Palestinian state, giving up "parts of the ancestral Jewish homeland", "some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders" while attaching the settlement blocs to Israel, a mere "long-term military presence along the Jordan River", a demilitarized Palestinian state, and rejection of Hamas as part of a Palestinian government represented by Palestinian negotiators. But because so large a portion of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition is to the right of the Israeli consensus, he had to hedge his bets.
Hence, Jerusalem has to remain the united capital of Israel–a non-starter from the Palestinian standpoint. And hence the rather incredible demand, that seems to have been ignored in most analyses of Netanyahu’s speech in Congress, that Israel be allowed under any agreement to hold onto "other places of critical strategic and national importance".
If it weren’t so depressing, it could be entertaining to imagine how the Netanyahu government’s supporters play with this phrase in order to assuage their doubts regarding the prime minister’s apparent readiness to evacuate settlements in order to make room for a Palestinian state. Are the "Mayflower" settlements of Bet El and Ofra of national importance? Is the Machpelah cave in Hebron? Are one or two high hilltops in the West Bank of strategic importance because they can serve Israeli military reconnaissance objectives? This seemingly innocuous throwaway phrase must be to the settlers and their supporters what a pacifier is to a baby.
"Other places of critical strategic and national importance" tells us what we really need to know about Netanyahu’s two-state strategy. It’s about American and Israeli public support, not about a peace process. The Israeli prime minister apparently reasons that, armed with that support, he will weather the Palestinians’ UN initiative in September and even weather the growing isolation of Israel and the possible ensuing intifada, fueled by the flames of Arab revolution all around us and by Iran and its Islamist allies.
Given the non-existence of a peace process and the looming threats, it makes a lot more sense for both Netanyahu and Obama to leverage the Palestinian UN initiative into a "win-win" proposition for both Israelis and Palestinians. Netanyahu is gambling with Israel’s vital interests smugly, arrogantly–and recklessly.