Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked squarely at the video camera filming his foreign policy address Sunday at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, but he was also speaking directly to U.S President Barack Obama in Washington.
Responding almost point for point to the president’s speech 10 days earlier at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Netanyahu accepted a two-state solution, as long as the international community ensures that an independent Palestinian state does not constitute a military threat to Israel.
Netanyahu also accepted that his government would build no new settlements, but he insisted on the right of allowing the natural growth of the communities.
He urged the Palestinian leadership in straightforward terms to return to the negotiating table. “I call on you, our Palestinian neighbors, and to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority: Let us begin peace negotiations immediately, without preconditions. Israel is committed to international agreements and expects all the other parties to fulfil their obligations as well.”
To be sure, Netanyahu was also speaking to the large majority of Israelis who hover at the centre of the political spectrum. While holding on to the centrist Israeli who seeks a safe way of disengaging from the Palestinians, he wanted to give enough to Obama to keep the process moving and the relationship intact.
Preliminary comments by Obama officials on Netanyahu’s speech were positive. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs characterized Netanyahu’s remarks as an “important step forward.”
More importantly, Gibbs used the occasion to reinforce to Israelis that Obama understood the principles as well as the nuances of Israel’s side of the process. “The president is committed to two states, a Jewish state of Israel and an independent Palestine, in the historic homeland of both peoples. He believes this solution can and must ensure both Israel’s security and the fulfilment of the Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations for a viable state, and he welcomes Prime Minister Netanyahu’s endorsement of that goal” (emphasis added).