I’m in agreement with the pundits who conclude that there was absolutely nothing new for consideration offered in Netanyahu’s speech. Perhaps he achieved a personal milestone by finally uttering the words “Palestinian state” but beyond this it was a tune we’ve all heard before. He offered “peace negotiations immediately without prior conditions” then proceeded to spell out the all too familiar prior conditions that everyone knows are non-starters for the Palestinians (i.e. Jerusalem remains the “united capital of Israel,” “natural growth” of the settlements will continue, there will be no right of return for the Palestinians.)
Same old, same old. For me at least, the most interesting parts of his speech were not his tired policy pronouncements, but his extended forays into historical analysis – and in particular, his repeated justifications of the Jewish people’s right to the land:
The connection of the Jewish People to the Land has been in existence for more than 3,500 years. Judea and Samaria, the places where our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob walked, our forefathers David, Solomon, Isaiah and Jeremiah this is not a foreign land, this is the Land of our Forefathers.
It seemed clear that Netanyahu’s history lesson was a pointed rejoinder to Obama’s Cairo speech, in which Obama stated that the “Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” You may have heard that following his speech, many in the Jewish community criticized Obama for connecting Israel’s right to exist to the Holocaust and failing to cite the Jewish people’s historical connection to the land. Witness this livid Jerusalem Post editorial:
Mr. President, long before Christianity and Islam appeared on the world stage, the covenant between the people of Israel and the Land of Israel was entrenched and unwavering. Every day we prayed in our ancient tongue for our return to Zion. Every day, Mr. President. For 2,000 years.
Perhaps it’s because Palestine was never sovereign under the Arabs that even moderate Palestinians cannot find it in their hearts to acknowledge the depth of the Jews’ connection to Zion. Instead, they insist we are interlopers.
When Obama implies that Jewish rights are essentially predicated on the Holocaust—not once asserting they are far, far deeper and more ancient—he is dooming the prospects for peace.
For why should the Arabs reconcile themselves to the presence of a Jewish state, organic to the region, when the US president keeps insinuating that Israel was established to atone for Europe’s crimes?
Thus Netanyahu’s pointed words yesterday:
The right of the Jewish People to a state in the Land of Israel does not arise from the series of disasters that befell the Jewish People over 2,000 years – persecutions, expulsions, pogroms, blood libels, murders, which reached its climax in the Holocaust, an unprecedented tragedy in the history of nations…The right to establish our sovereign state here, in the Land of Israel, arises from one simple fact: Eretz Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish People.
It’s facinating to me that Netanyahu et al are so threatened by the suggestion that Israel’s establishment is ultimately bound to the Holocaust. After all, didn’t Theodor Herzl himself found political Zionism as a reponse to world anti-Semitism? And whatever historical claim the Jewish people might have to the land of Israel, it’s safe to say there would never have been international support for a Jewish state had it not been for the Holocaust.
Beyond this, I’m troubled by the need to continuously and defensively remind the world of the historical Jewish connection to this particular piece of land. I’m not at all sure that this is really a road we really need or want to go down.
What does it really mean for any people to have a “right” to a land? I understand that the Jewish nation, like every nation, has its historic narrative, but let’s face it: nations don’t exist by right, they exist by fiat. Nations exist by virtue of military power and by their ability to maintain a system of governance that will ensure their survival as a polity. Beyond this, it’s pointless to argue one’s historical or moral right to a land. It seems to me that if history has proven anything, it’s that might makes right – and all the rest is commentary.
The real question here is not who has a right to this land. The central issue is how its inhabitants will see fit to exist on the land. And on this point, I don’t see that Netanyahu gave us anything fresh to consider.