Netanyahu's real message to Congress: There will be no peace talks

OK, those words didn't come out of his mouth. But that's the practical meaning of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress this morning.

By , Staff writer

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    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures while addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Tuesday, May 24.
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The peace process is going nowhere. That's the practical take-away from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to a joint session of Congress this morning.

Of course, he didn't frame it that way. But between a series of preconditions he placed on a return to negotiations and a public insistence that an indefinite Israeli occupation of the Jordan Valley is nonnegotiable, that's the message that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would have received. An Abbas aide said the speech amounted to a "declaration of war."

Mr. Netanyahu's speech had been teed up by members of the chattering classes as "make or break," an opportunity for the hawkish Israeli leader to regain some diplomatic initiative. The Palestinian effort to be recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in September as an independent state is gathering steam and political change in the Middle East is upending longstanding security relationships.

Recommended: 7 reasons to be optimistic about Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

Instead, Netanyahu basked in the glow of more than 20 standing ovations from the both sides of Congress (the joint session rivaled the AIPAC convention with its outpouring of support for Bibi) and reiterated his long-standing positions:

  • Jerusalem is nonnegotiable, Israeli property now and forever (East Jerusalem is not considered by most states, including the US, to be Israeli territory);
  • Palestinian negotiators, presumably the Palestine Liberation Organization, must recognize Israel as a "Jewish" state as a precondition for talks (the PLO recognized Israel's right to exist in 1993);
  • Mr. Abbas must "tear up" the unity government deal he inked recently with Hamas as a precondition for talks (the unity arrangement is, among Palestinians, one of Abbas' most popular accomplishments for years);
  • No Palestinian refugees or the descendants of refugees will ever be allowed to return to Israel proper; and the Palestinians must accept a permanent Israeli military presence in their midst as part of an eventual peace settlement.

While many of these things are longstanding Israeli positions, it still stings Palestinian audiences to hear them stated, particularly so forcefully and with such ringing support from the legislature of the most powerful country in the world.

Netanyahu's insistence that "in Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers," won't have helped matters either. The UN and virtually every state views the West Bank (the biblical Judea and Samaria) to be occupied. While he's referring to Jews' religious claim on the area stemming from the Bible – a stance that receives strong support in Congress – Palestinians view that kind of language as highly insulting.

The Palestinian disunity that has prevailed since Hamas won 2006 elections, with the Islamist group in charge of Gaza and Abbas' secular Fatah party in charge of the West Bank, has been one of Palestinians' major weaknesses. With Hamas completely outside the process, it was hard to see how Abbas and other Palestinian negotiators could deliver on any promises that they might make. But Netanyahu, who called Hamas a "Palestinian version of Al Qaeda," demanded today that the Palestinian leadership go back to square one on that issue.

Hamas certainly favors the use of violence against Israel, and is branded by both Israel and the US as a terrorist group. But it is a powerful, well-supported force in Palestinian society, and shares neither Al Qaeda's ideology nor its ultimate goals.

It's quite simply not possible to meaningfully negotiate a peace without finding a way to bring them along. Some had hoped their presence in a unity government while the PLO led peace talks would have been an acceptable compromise.

To be fair, the outlook for peace talks was grim before Netanyahu spoke. Neither Abbas nor other Palestinian leaders have been willing to give up their insistence that Israeli settlement expansion in occupied land stop before peace talks could resume. Just yesterday, Israel approved almost 300 new settlers homes in the West Bank.

But Netanyahu's words will have helped harden positions – at a time when President Obama is reaching out to Europe on Israel's behalf, urging states there not to sign on to the Palestinians' push for nationhood under UN auspices.

The idea has been warmly received in many European capitals, where diplomats reason that perhaps it's time for a unilateral solution to the mess in the Holy Land. Part and parcel with that effort comes an increasing framing of Israel as an illegitimate occupier who is being asked to withdraw to internationally recognized borders. Obama warned against efforts to "delegitimize" Israel at the end of last week.

Still, there are growing signs of impatience with Israel everywhere you look.

Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, took to Twitter after Netanyahu's speech. "Not easy to be optimistic about the prospects for peace in the Middle East after having heard PM Netanyahu's address to US Congress," he wrote.

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