"Netanyahu signals readiness to consider 2002 Arab peace plan" read the Reuters headline. Well, I heard Netanyahu's speech live via the Knesset website today, and all I can say is: I don't buy it.
Bibi got up to address the Knesset today because he had to. The previously-postponed "40 signatures Knesset discussion" finally took place today, fittingly, on the day that the Six Day War broke out in 1967. It's the anniversary of the "naksa" or the "setback" for Palestinians. The Knesset discussion took place because of a law that says that if 40 Knesset members sign a petition to summon the Prime Minister to speak on an issue, he is obligated by law to address the Knesset on the subject. Today's subject: the Arab Peace Initiative (API).
And so Netanyahu came, and he spoke. And he said four words that took the media by storm, just as he knew they would. He uttered them in English because "he [Abbas] is not a Hebrew speaker, and my Arabic isn't great." Uh huh. Those four words were: "Give peace a chance." My only thought was: really?
There are a thousand and one reasons to be deeply incredulous about this remark. I'll restrain myself and stick to three of them for now:
First, the reaction of the MKs. Just after Bibi said those four sparkling, magic, press-attracting words, the camera panned to Ra'am Ta'al MK Dr. Ahmed Tibi, who was raising his eyebrows and chuckling. It then panned to Jewish Home MK and Minister of lots of things, Naftali Bennett, who was all but laughing outright as Netanyahu concluded: "Don't miss the opportunity!" Both Tibi and Bennett, no doubt, held their smirks for a long while after that English phrase was spoken—because they know Bibi's not serious. And so did the camera man, who knew to pan to them. Everybody there knew it was bogus.
Beyond the fact that no one believes him, the way Netanyahu referenced the API speaks volumes. The only time he gestured toward the Arab Peace Initiative itself was to practically dismiss it: he gave the most general of sound bites about peace proposals ("we listen to every initiative") and then carried on with "we are prepared to discuss initiatives that are proposals, not edicts." That line, which refers indirectly to the API, does not even pretend to take it seriously. A classic Israeli response to the API—since its inception through its publication in Israeli newspapers in late 2008—has been to assume that it is an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it diktat meant to force an agreement on Israel that better serves an Arab agenda. But, as a new Molad report demonstrates with crystal clarity, that never was the case. The format of the initiative is declarative. It is "sparse" and contains "none of the vital components that would make…an agreement." It is an invitation for an Israeli response—as organizations like the Israel Peace Initiative have well understood. Israelis don't need to respond with an absolute "yes" or "no" to this declaration—but they need to respond.
Finally, the other things Bibi said in the speech had very little to do with peace or its advantages. He spoke about the threats Israel faces instead. He reiterated that he thinks that Israel is the most threatened country in the world, the thousands of rockets beyond Israel's borders, Iranian nuclear advancement, and how though he was "ready to make tough decisions" he would not "endanger the citizens of Israel." He called on Abbas, as is his wont, to drop preconditions and to sit down to negotiations, which, he said, should last many hours. All of this rhetoric is so deeply typical that it's hard for me to understand any excitement—generated by Reuters or anybody else—over this speech.
The API is a serious document that has been undeservedly dismissed by the Israeli government time and time again. Opposition leader Shelly Yachimovitch, who spoke immediately after Netanyahu (though her speech was not covered by Reuters) called him out: Doing nothing, she said, is doing something. The status quo hurts us, taking us farther away from two states, and in turn, she said, farther away from the realization of the Zionist dream. She told Netanyahu that if he were to get serious about talks, the opposition would be behind him, setting aside other partisan differences for the sake of peace. She asked him to stop fear-mongering, and to be a hero. But you and I know just as well as Bennett and Tibi that he won't be. And this speech proves it.