Netanyahu's make-or-break speech to Congress

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, long criticized for being passive and reactionary, is under pressure to exhibit the Zionist legacy of risk-taking and initiative in his address to Congress today.

Jason Reed/Reuters
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech before Congress today follows his address last night at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington on May 23.

Four days after publicly spurning President Obama's vision for ending the Israeli-Arab conflict, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure from supporters and critics alike to present an alternative plan for peace as he addresses a joint session of US Congress.

In the shadow of regional change, Mr. Netanyahu has been attacked for taking a passive, reactive stance that favors his own political survival over meaningful progress with the Palestinians. Now, with Palestinians gaining momentum on a United Nations vote to establish a Palestinian state without Israel's approval, his country faces a growing threat of isolation and attacks on its legitimacy.

Many see Netanyahu's speech today as an opportunity to take the diplomatic initiative, tapping into an Israeli legacy of risk-taking, initiative, and creativity that stretches from the country's founding fathers to today's technology entrepreneurs. That spirit – summed up in Zionist leader Theodore Herzl's phrase, "If you will it, it is no dream" – has been seen in everything from preemptive military attacks to a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

"The basic premise of Zionism is that the Jews need to take responsibility for their fate, and what distinguishes Israelis from Jews in the past is that we can be masters of our destiny," says Yossi Klein Halevy, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

"To say that there is nothing for Israel to do to improve its situation is to commit an act of heresy against Zionism, and so some Israelis see Netanyahu’s seeming paralysis as a negation of the national ethos," he adds.

'Start-Up Nation,' or stagnant nation?

The criticism is mostly heard from Israeli doves, but there have also been some on the right who have said that, instead of just blaming the Palestinians for setting preconditions for peace talks, Mr. Netanyahu needs to come forward with his own vision.

Erel Margalit, an Israeli venture capitalist who is running for the leadership of the opposition Labor Party, said Netanyahu should look to former Israeli prime ministers like David Ben Gurion – who accepted a 1947 UN plan to partition Palestine into two states – and Ariel Sharon who unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip.

"We are considered a 'Start-Up Nation,' " says Mr. Margalit, referring to the recent New York Times bestseller about Israel's entrepreneurial spirit. "But Netanyahu is turning us into a stagnant nation."

"The Arab Spring is not just a threat but it's also bringing hope to the Middle East," he adds. "Israel needs to go back to being proactive rather than reactive."

Hints of a new concession, but hesitance, too

"Anyone who has played chess knows the advantage of being one step ahead," says an Israeli official. "But there is a debate in Israel about whether we should or whether we can take an initiative vis-à-vis the Palestinians."

Among the reasons for Israel's hesitancy is the recent Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal, which unites Israel's Palestinian partners for peace with a group both Israel and the US have branded a terrorist organization; regional upheaval as a result of the Arab Spring, and doubt about Palestinian political will for negotiations.

A week ago, in an address to the Israeli parliament, Netanyahu dropped hints of a fresh move when he emphasized Israel’s large settlement blocs as core requirements for peace -- implying he'd be willing to cede control over other settlements in the West Bank.

But that was quickly overshadowed by a public clash with President Obama over his endorsement of the 1967 line as a basis for negotiations as well as an Israeli announcement of new Jewish neighborhoods in disputed parts of Jerusalem.

Make-or-break speech for Netanyahu

Analysts believe the unprecedented public confrontation with Obama was initiated by Netanyahu to shore up political support back in Israel, but note that it carries the risk of alienating the US administration. The stakes will be even higher today when Netanyahu goes before the Republican-controlled House; Israeli newspapers portrayed it as a make-or-break speech for Netanyahu’s career at home and abroad.

"He is trying to go over Obama’s head. He is embroiling himself, and trying to use a domestic American sphere to make his case," says a Western diplomat based in Jerusalem."He has allowed [Israel] to be painted as the refuser, as the one who is saying no. Usually it’s the Palestinians that play that role."

To be sure, many in Israel don’t believe that a final status peace agreement with the Palestinians is possible at present because the gaps between the sides are too large. But that doesn’t excuse an Israeli prime minister from suggesting his own plan, says Shlomo Avineri, a political science professor at Hebrew University and a former director general for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

"Between the status quo and the final status agreement there are a whole list of steps that can be taken," says Mr. Avineri, adding that Netanyahu's passiveness is not unique; Israeli prime ministers in the past four decades have generally lacked will and power to embark on dramatic initiatives. "The alternative is not doing anything and hoping for a utopian final status agreement. This would be not helpful because Israel should not appear as being passive and leaving the initiative to others.’’

Many Israelis see peaceniks and settlers alike as reckless, impatient

The impatience with Netanyahu also comes from core supporters. While they applauded his rejection of returning to the 1967 borders, they want the prime minister to annex West Bank settlements to Israel in response to the Palestinian move.

"If you believe that you have the right to annex Judea and Samaria because it's your land, then what are you waiting for?’’ says Yishia Fleisher, director of, an organization which promotes Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Jerusalem. "Why does Israel always to have to always be reactionary?"

But Mr. Halevy argues that Netanyahu’s perceived inaction doesn’t bother the average Israel, and instead reflects widespread disillusionment from ideological movements at opposite ends of the political spectrum that have fallen from popularity.

"Many other Israelis have reached the opposite conclusion: that the recklessness of both the peace movement and the settlement movement, both of which believed that they could bring peace and security to Israel, and instead brought the opposite. For them that’s what brought us to the dead end that we’re in."

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