Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's BESA Speech: Key Points
Posted: June 16, 2009
On June 14, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a highly anticipated speech on his vision for an Israeli-Palestinian peace at the Begin-Sadat Center (BESA) at Bar-Illan University.
The address had significant and practical proposals for furthering relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and the Arab world. He set out a practical vision of an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace, including a Palestinian state, but was clear on what Israel expects from the Palestinians in terms of recognition and security conditions.
Throughout the speech, Netanyahu vigorously affirmed Israel as the Jewish national state. Clearly, for Netanyahu, this is the key element in an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and its rejection the root of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In many ways, the Prime Minister's passionate statements regarding Israel as a Jewish state, its history and ideological underpinnings was a rejoinder to the manner in which President Obama presented the origins of the founding of the State of Israel in his speech in Cairo, as well as to the current focus in Washington and in the international community on the centrality of settlements to the dispute.
Key elements in the Prime Minister's speech include:
• Vision of a Palestinian state alongside Israel: The headline from the speech was of the Prime Minister's call for "two states." While Netanyahu has made allusions to this in previous statements (including repeated assertions that Israel has no desire to rule over the Palestinians), it was his first such explicit statement:
"We do not want to rule over them, we do not want to govern their lives, we do not want to impose either our flag or our culture on them. In my vision of peace, in this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other. "
• Israeli security prerequisites for a Palestinian state: While the Prime Minister declared support for a Palestinian state, he made clear that Israel has two fundamental conditions that would have to be met before it could agree to its establishment: that "Palestinians must clearly and unambiguously recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people" and that a Palestinian state be demilitarized, "with ironclad security provisions for Israel." Regarding demilitarization, he said the state must be "without an army, without control of its airspace, and with effective security measures to prevent weapons smuggling into the territory – real monitoring, and not what occurs in Gaza today. And obviously, the Palestinians will not be able to forge military pacts." As he declared: "If we receive this guarantee regarding demilitarization and Israel's security needs, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the State of the Jewish people, then we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state."
The status of a Palestinian state that is demilitarized is not new. It has been a tacit Israeli position since the era of the Oslo process, and has been a key component of every Israeli proposal since that time.
Insistence on Palestinian recognition of Israel as the "state of the Jewish people" goes beyond the traditional Israeli position that the Palestinians recognize Israel's "right to exist" – which was the cornerstone of the September 1993 "Declaration of Principles" which began the Oslo process. The demand is consistent with the Prime Minister's assessment of the "root cause" of the conflict and this theme resonates throughout the speech.
• Expectations from the Palestinians to fight terrorism and prepare its population for peace and "overcome Hamas": Prime Minister Netanyahu called on Palestinian society to "turn toward peace": "in fighting terror, in strengthening governance and the rule of law, in educating their children for peace and in stopping incitement against Israel." He stated that should the Palestinians do so, Israel will "mak(e) every effort to facilitate freedom of movement and access, and to enable them to develop their economy." The Prime Minister made clear that in order to pursue peace, the Palestinian Authority will have to take action against Hamas:
"Above all else, the Palestinians must decide between the path of peace and the path of Hamas. The Palestinian Authority will have to establish the rule of law in Gaza and overcome Hamas. Israel will not sit at the negotiating table with terrorists who seek their destruction."
• Other issues for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – borders, Jerusalem, refugees: While he did not go into specifics on borders, Netanyahu stated: "Israel needs defensible borders," and that "the territorial question will be discussed as part of the final peace agreement." On Jerusalem, he declared: "Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel with continued religious freedom for all faiths." Netanyahu made clear that the Palestinian demand for a "right of return" for Palestinian refugees to be settled inside Israel is non-negotiable, "For it is clear that any demand for resettling Palestinian refugees within Israel undermines Israel's continued existence as the state of the Jewish people," and that the solution to these refugees lies "outside of Israel's borders" with the help of the international community. This has long been Israeli policy. Netanyahu pointed to Israel's success in absorbing hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees expelled from Arab lands as an example for the Palestinians to follow.
• Settlements: On the contentious issue of settlements, Netanyahu made clear that there would be no "building new settlements or of expropriating additional land for existing settlements." However, the Prime Minister made clear that Israel would not restrict "natural growth" within existing settlements: As he explained: "But there is a need to enable the residents to live normal lives, to allow mothers and fathers to raise their children like families elsewhere. The settlers are neither the enemies of the people nor the enemies of peace. Rather, they are an integral part of our people, a principled, pioneering and Zionist public."
• Regional role in promoting peace and improving the Palestinian economy: Netanyahu opened his comments on the peace process with a strong appeal to Arab powers in the region to work together with Israel and the Palestinians, particularly in the realm of economic development:
"I call on the Arab countries to cooperate with the Palestinians and with us to advance an economic peace. An economic peace is not a substitute for a political peace, but an important element to achieving it. Together, we can undertake projects to overcome the scarcities of our region, like water desalination or to maximize its advantages, like developing solar energy, or laying gas and petroleum lines, and transportation links between Asia, Africa and Europe. The economic success of the Gulf States has impressed us all and it has impressed me. I call on the talented entrepreneurs of the Arab world to come and invest here and to assist the Palestinians – and us – in spurring the economy. Together, we can develop industrial areas that will generate thousands of jobs and create tourist sites that will attract millions of visitors eager to walk in the footsteps of history – in Nazareth and in Bethlehem, around the walls of Jericho and the walls of Jerusalem, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee and the baptismal site of the Jordan. There is an enormous potential for archeological tourism, if we can only learn to cooperate and to develop it."
He appealed to Arab leaders to meet: "Let us meet. Let us speak of peace and let us make peace. I am ready to meet with you at any time. I am willing to go to Damascus, to Riyadh, to Beirut, to any place- including Jerusalem.'
• Centrality of Israel as a Jewish state: Throughout his speech, the Prime Minister asserted the principle that Israel is a Jewish nation state, and that acceptance of this reality is crucial to Israel's existence, its security, and must be the basis a peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu's discussion of the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel leading up to the establishment of the modern state, may be seen as a direct rejoinder to President Obama's Cairo reference to Israel being founded as a result of the Holocaust. As the Prime Minister declared:
"The connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel has lasted for more than 3500 years. Judea and Samaria, the places where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, David and Solomon, and Isaiah and Jeremiah lived, are not alien to us. This is the land of our forefathers. The right of the Jewish people to a state in the land of Israel does not derive from the catastrophes that have plagued our people. True, for 2000 years the Jewish people suffered expulsions, pogroms, blood libels, and massacres which culminated in a Holocaust - a suffering which has no parallel in human history. There are those who say that if the Holocaust had not occurred, the state of Israel would never have been established. But I say that if the state of Israel would have been established earlier, the Holocaust would not have occurred. This tragic history of powerlessness explains why the Jewish people need a sovereign power of self-defense. But our right to build our sovereign state here, in the land of Israel, arises from one simple fact: this is the homeland of the Jewish people, this is where our identity was forged."
• Setting the historical record straight on the origins of the conflict – the lack of recognition of the right of a Jewish state to exist: In another apparent rejoinder to President Obama's Cairo speech (which did not mention the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict) and to the Administration's focus on Israeli settlements, the Prime Minister strongly declared that Arab enmity has little to do with the West Bank or Gaza Strip, but is fundamentally due to "the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own, in their historic homeland":
"And the simple truth is that the root of the conflict was, and remains, the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own, in their historic homeland.
"In 1947, when the United Nations proposed the partition plan of a Jewish state and an Arab state, the entire Arab world rejected the resolution. The Jewish community, by contrast, welcomed it by dancing and rejoicing. The Arabs rejected any Jewish state, in any borders. Those who think that the continued enmity toward Israel is a product of our presence in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, is confusing cause and consequence. The attacks against us began in the 1920s, escalated into a comprehensive attack in 1948 with the declaration of Israel's independence, continued with the fedayeen attacks in the 1950s, and climaxed in 1967, on the eve of the six-day war, in an attempt to tighten a noose around the neck of the State of Israel. All this occurred during the fifty years before a single Israeli soldier ever set foot in Judea and Samaria."
• Setting the record straight on Israel's territorial withdrawals: Netanyahu also hit back at allegations that Israel has not done enough for peace, and that territorial withdrawal by Israel will end the conflict. Netanyahu noted that time and again, Israel had withdrawn from territory, only to face further security threats:
"Many good people have told us that withdrawal from territories is the key to peace with the Palestinians. Well, we withdrew. But the fact is that every withdrawal was met with massive waves of terror, by suicide bombers and thousands of missiles. We tried to withdraw with an agreement and without an agreement. We tried a partial withdrawal and a full withdrawal. In 2000 and again last year, Israel proposed an almost total withdrawal in exchange for an end to the conflict, and twice our offers were rejected.
"We evacuated every last inch of the Gaza strip, we uprooted tens of settlements and evicted thousands of Israelis from their homes, and in response, we received a hail of missiles on our cities, towns and children. The claim that territorial withdrawals will bring peace with the Palestinians, or at least advance peace, has up till now not stood the test of reality."