June 17, 2009
OK, let’s tally up the historic Middle East speeches this month. First, there was President Barack Obama’s June 4 address at Cairo University, where he charted a new course for U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Then there was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s game-changing June 14 address at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center, where he embraced — well, begrudgingly accepted — the idea of a Palestinian state.
Then there was the remarkable address by the Arab leader of…. Oh, right, there wasn’t one.
Why is it the critics of Netanyahu’s speech never stopped to ask the simple question: Where was the Arab counterpart? If June is now Middle East Landmark Speech Month, why are only the United States and Israel celebrating?
The reason is twofold: When America whistles, Israel is compelled to come. The American president’s call for a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel and for a freeze to settlement expansion demanded a response from a prime minister who had, over the years, opposed those things.
There are some Israelis who think that Israel can go its own way if its primary friend and supporter disagrees with it. Sure, and the Lakers could have clinched the championship against Orlando without Kobe and Fisher.
“The reason for giving the speech was what the prime minister called the ‘international situation’ — a delicate way of referring to U.S. diplomatic pressure,” blogged Gershom Gorenberg, author of “The Accidental Empire.”
But it goes beyond just U.S. pressure. The democratically elected leader of Israel had to answer to his own people, he had to explain where he stood in relation to their most important ally.
So Netanyahu strove mightily to soften his hard line. His advisers pushed him to include the two words that they knew would be magic to Obama’s — and the world’s — ears, “Palestinian state,” even if doing so would infuriate his hard-line supporters, even if the Arabs would call him disingenuous, even if he himself had major reservations. The European Union said it was a step in the right direction.
“There were a lot of conditions,” Obama said of the speech this week, “But what we’re seeing is at least the possibility that we can restart serious talks.”
The Arab leaders didn’t respond with speeches, but with criticism and nitpicking.
No major policy speech from Cairo — other than Obama’s. And not one from any other Muslim capital.
If any single fact should reveal what Israel is up against, it’s the fact of that silence — of leaders who don’t need to answer to their people, of leaders who are afraid to confront their extremists, of people who are afraid to demand answers of their leaders.
That explains why the world heard from the American president and the Israeli prime minister, but not from any other Arab or Muslim leader.
So allow me.
Netanyahu’s speech was the perfect opportunity for a major address from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Petrified of Hamas, weakened among his own people, Abbas dared not speak out, other than to let his spokesmen summarily dismiss the speech as “meaningless and worthless.”
But what if he had seized the opportunity presented by Netanyahu’s speech? What if Abbas felt compelled to answer to his people, to offer something new as Obama and Netanyahu did?
Here’s what he could have said:
“My fellow Palestinians: Yesterday the Israeli prime minister stood before his people and the world and declared his vision for a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel in peace. Today I stand before you and the world and say one word: Yes.
“Yes, we look forward to living in our own state side-by-side with Israel. Yes, we look forward to negotiations that will work out our many very deep differences over the issues of borders, settlements, Jerusalem, water and security.
“Yes, we understand that our security is tied to Israel’s, our prosperity to Israel’s prosperity, our children’s peace to Israel’s children’s peace.
“Many have criticized the prime minister for his list of preconditions and conditions. I have ears. I heard those too.
“But like the American president I also heard something bigger from him, something new and different, and that is what I, too, am offering my proud, patient people: a chance to seize the new moment and leap forward. So I say: Yes.
“The Israeli prime minister said he wants a demilitarized Palestine. I say: Yes. We want to spend our money on schools, health care and business investment. We want to be Costa Rica, not Sudan. In fact, we think every state should be demilitarized.
“The prime minister said he wants us to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, to which I say: Yes. We accept Israel as a Jewish democratic state, and we expect it to live up to the promise of true democracy.
“The prime minister said he wants us to defeat our rejectionists and extremists, and I say: Yes. We urge the United States and other allies to put a large peacekeeping force in Gaza and the West Bank, as they did in Sinai, and help keep missiles and terrorism out of Palestinian and Israeli lives.
“Years ago in Khartoum, Arab leaders issued three nos to Israel. Today I have offered three yesses. Mr. Obama has offered us a future, Mr. Netanyahu has touched it, and I have embraced it.”
This, my friends, is the missing speech.