Sometimes you cannot understand the greatness of a speech until you hear the spectrum of reactions to it. Netanyahu’s speech was heavy on style and light on new content: He made a shift from refusing to recognize the possibility of a Palestinian state toward allowing for one under very specific conditions: (i) It must be demilitarized; (ii) No refugees will be moved into Israel; (iii) it must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and (iv) Jerusalem will remain unified. Other than that, at first glance the speech provided mostly historical perspective, a few subtle retorts to Obama (as Jennifer pointed out), and an explicit announcement of his intention to stop building new settlements or expanding old ones beyond their current boundaries, but allowing for natural growth.
Yet the impact of the speech on Israel has been stunning. Most of it I’m picking up on radio and television (sorry no links), consisting of almost uniform praise; from settlers in Ofra who were pleased that he not only promised to allow them to live “normal” lives, but also praised their strength and Zionist values, all the way to Yael Tamir, a Labor-party rebel who has refused to participate in the coalition because it is too far right, but who nonetheless declared the speech to be a “very important step in the right direction” because of its recognition of a Palestinian state — a sentiment echoed by the opposition Kadima party as well.
The responses to Netanayahu’s speech reflect a consensus in Israel that is only growing stronger by the day: Nobody wants to rule over the Palestinians, nobody wants to see the West Bank become another Hamastan like Gaza, nobody wants to be told that their country exists at the expense of their suffering, and nobody thinks peace is around the corner. But everybody agrees that if the Palestinians would drop the violence and just try to live – to build an economy and a demilitarized civilian life alongside Israel, then Israelis would have a much easier time talking about statehood.
The greatness of his speech, in other words, was not in its eloquence or its boldness. It was in its unique ability to express the unified thinking of an entire nation.
This is what both the Americans and the Palestinians will now have to contend with. Bibi has made life fairly easy for Obama. By extracting a concession on the idea of a Palestinian state, the administration can declare victory and turn down the fire on the natural-growth issue. American and world attention will now be focused on what it should have been focused all along: The Palestinians. It is they, after all, who have utterly failed to meet any of the preconditions of the “road map” regarding a cessation of both preaching and practicing violence. It is they who harbor Hamas, Fatah-Tanzim, Islamic Jihad, and other armed groups to the point of having no capacity to rule or speak with a single, reliable voice. It is they who will have to radically change in order for peace to have a chance. If there’s no one to talk to, there’s nothing to talk about.
Small wonder, then, that the Palestinian reaction to the speech was so harsh. “A liar and a thief” is what their initial response called Netanyahu. Why indeed? Because he may have just burst their bubble of American coziness? Because he is openly willing to give them everything they should want, and refuses to give them everything they shouldn’t?