Opinion

Netanyahu's Congress speech could set Middle East peace back another 18 years

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech to Congress yesterday offered only more obstacles to lasting peace in the Middle East. He not only failed to provide a vision for the peace process, but he also introduced new terms and phrases that are likely to hamper future peace efforts.

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Taking advantage of his New York accent while addressing Congress on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered an eloquent speech offering only more obstacles to a lasting and just peace in the Middle East. He not only failed to provide a vision for the peace process in a changing Middle East, but also introduced new terms and phrases that will probably hamper any peace efforts in the future.

While Mr. Netanyahu demanded that a final agreement not be made along “indefensible lines,” he failed to define what borders he would consider “defensible.” Indeed, defining this term alone would require several rounds of negotiations. This issue of defensible borders is particularly complicated in today’s world, where technology plays an increasingly important role, as mentioned by President Obama and as evidenced by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.

Even if one follows the traditional definition of defensible boundaries, it remains unclear what would satisfy Netanyahu’s definition. This vagueness sets a dangerous precedent, which is capable of providing a pretext for Netanyahu to annex the entire Palestinian territories and still argue that the borders are not defensible.

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What are 'generous offers' and 'painful compromises'?

Though he has categorically rejected them in the past, Netanyahu also referred to the “generous offers” made by two Israeli Prime Ministers to argue that peace is not possible with the Palestinians. What he considers to being a “generous offer” is in fact what the Palestine Papers revealed to be merely a map presented to Palestinian President Abbas, which he was reportedly allowed to take down on only a napkin.

Netanyahu’s treatment of this as a “generous offer” sets yet another dangerous precedent. Since the Israeli prime minister has rejected such border offers in the past, he is now likely referring to an offer that is most likely to be even less generous than a map on a napkin.

Furthermore, Netanyahu repeatedly used the term “painful compromises” without ever explaining what the phrase meant. Netanyahu’s political history does not indicate to what extent he would be willing to engage in what he calls a “painful compromise” to reach peace with the Palestinians.

For someone with his right-wing political agenda, withdrawal from any part of the West Bank could be seen as a “painful compromise.” This deliberate ambiguity makes the quest for peace even more elusive, as we are left to chase definitions of terms rather than begin negotiations on final status issues and create a possible peace plan.

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Nothing left on the table to negotiate

Aside from the use of vague terms, Netanyahu also offered a radical plan that takes peace efforts back to their status in 1993. His terms of agreement exclude Jerusalem, refugees, and 1967 borders from any negotiations. This makes one wonder what it is exactly that Netanyahu wants to negotiate and why he keeps offering negotiations as the way forward, especially during continued settlement activities.

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Netanyahu’s speech indeed takes the search for peace in the Middle East in a different direction. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations began 18 years ago, and Netanyahu’s vision for negotiations means the process could necessitate 18 additional years only in search of definitions for his elusive terms of “generosity,” “defensibility,” and “painful compromises.”

Netanyahu would have done everyone a favor by offering a peace proposal that would show good will on his side and contribute productively to the already troubled peace process in the Middle East.

Netanyahu's speech hurts Israel

The Israeli prime minister’s speech in Congress – though met with applause – is a recipe for disaster, not for peace. It is detrimental for Palestinians, Americans, and for Israelis.

The speech is a slap to Mr. Abbas and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Fayyad’s robust work on state building and good governance in the Palestinian territories. It also complicates the American dilemma of supporting calls for freedom in Syria and Libya while vetoing a Palestinian independence proposal in the Security Council.

Ultimately, Netanyahu’s speech is no doubt bad for the Israelis, as it failed to respond to the changing Arab world and forge partnerships with the region’s people, not the dictators. It is perhaps the time for the Israelis to launch a “Tahrir Square” in Tel Aviv to oppose their government’s extremist agenda.

Rae Abileah, the 28-year old Jewish woman who disrupted Netanyahu’s speech in Congress, has already set the stage for such a project with her statement, “Not in my name, Stop the occupation.”

Ibrahim Sharqieh is deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. He is an expert on Middle Eastern politics and international conflict resolution.

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