05.24.11

Palestinians React to Benjamin Netanyahu's Washington Speech

As Congress cheers Israeli leader’s peace plan, Ramallah residents jeer. Jerusalem Bureau Chief Dan Ephron reports from the West Bank.

In Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got standing ovations during this hour-long address to both houses of Congress. At the Tarwee’a café in Ramallah, he mostly got ignored. Palestinians in their twenties sucked on Hubblie Bubblies and ate the shawarma dajaj – a chicken dish, heavy on the cumin - that is the house specialty.  With the volume turned down low on two flat screen TVs—both tuned to CNN—Netanyahu drew an occasional glance. No boos, not even sneers, just studied indifference. “This man never says anything new,” said Mahmoud Ghanim, adding a pinch of sweet-smelling tobacco to his water pipe.

Not entirely true. In what Israeli analysts had billed as the speech of his 30-year political career, Netanyahu revealed a bit more of his vision for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, though not the kind of blueprint that President Barack Obama and others had been hoping to hear. Netanyahu pledged to be “very generous” with Palestinians on the size of their state. He said Israel recognized that a future Palestine must be “big enough to be viable, independent and prosperous.” And he promised to put forward a “far-reaching compromise.”               

But the details he offered mostly made clear that the gaps between his positions and those of the Palestinians—along with much of the world’s—remain wide. Netanyahu said he would cede no part of East Jerusalem, which Israel captured along with the rest of the West Bank in 1967 and which most countries view as occupied territory.  He said Israel would incorporate some West Bank settlements into its territory under a peace deal. And, for the first time, he declared that Palestinians would have to accept some settlements in their own territory, even after their independence. The positions are all non-starters for Palestinians.           

Palestinian officials said the address marked the Israeli leader as the real stumbling block to an agreement.

Netanyahu also asserted that Israel would maintain a “long-term military presence” in the Jordan Valley, where the Palestinian state would border Jordan. He accused Palestinians of failing to accept the Jewish state as a legitimate and permanent fixture in the region. As he spoke, a protester in the gallery held up a sign saying, “Occupying Land is Indefensible,” before getting tackled by spectators.

Palestinian officials said the address marked the Israeli leader as the real stumbling block to an agreement. “What Netanyahu proposed in his speech won’t lead to peace, but would instead place more obstacles in front of the peace process,” said Nabil Abu Rudaineh, the senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In Israel, Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners praised the address.                

The speech capped five days of intensive Mideast diplomacy in Washington, beginning with an address by President Obama Thursday in which he said the 1967 borders plus agreed land swaps should form the basis of talks between the two sides. Netanyahu and Obama then held a tense meeting Friday followed by separate addresses at the conference of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby. In the speech to Congress, Netanyahu reiterated that Israel would never return to the 1967 borders.   

With all the talk of peace plans and political gestures, it’s easy to forget the grim reality here. For more than two years now, the two sides have had almost no face-to-face negotiations.  Most Palestinians are convinced Netanyahu only talks about compromising in order to appear moderate to Obama but would never cede an inch. Many Israelis believe a power-sharing agreement Abbas signed earlier this month with the Islamic Hamas group rules him out as a peace partner.                

At Tarwee’a, meanwhile, someone flips the channel and turns up the volume. It’s a Lebanese version of MTV. Now people are paying attention.

Dan Ephron has been Newsweek's Jerusalem bureau chief since January, 2010. Previously, he served as a national security correspondent and deputy bureau chief for the magazine in Washington. His stories have also appeared in the Boston Globe, The New Republic and Esquire.