It nearly made one feel sorry for Benjamin Netanyahu, watching him progress through his speech, through an ocean of right-wing rhetoric full of national symbols, until he uttered two words: "Palestinian state" (which were followed by a third: "demilitarized"). These two words were uttered like a rotten tooth pulled from its socket without anesthesia. In spite all this, he lived.
Five prime ministers said it before him, two of them from Likud, so yesterday's drama at Bar-Ilan University was quite limited. Nonetheless, one cannot ignore Netanyahu's change, at this stage only rhetorical: from complete rejection of the idea, to conditional acceptance - reserved and layered.
Contrary to his predecessors, who believed in the moral and ethical necessity of a two-state solution, the prime minister was evidently not a believer. He has had to loosen the American noose on a daily basis, and he made the effort. Anyone who believes a Palestinian state will arise under Netanyahu, even if he lasts out his term, raise your hand now.
Why did he wait until yesterday? Why did he not say this immediately after the elections? He might have been able to bring Kadima into his coalition. And if not then, then why not in a photo opportunity with Barack Obama at the Oval Office? The growing international pressure, the chill from the Israeli public, all these forced him to climb, even belatedly, onto the lingering two-state wagon.
Today Netanyahu will face his first political test before the Likud faction. He will meet some of the sour and angry faces he would gladly forgo: Benny Begin, maybe Moshe Ya'alon, and the MKs on the back benches. Miri Regev and Tzipi Hotovely will let him have it. He will get an earful.
Netanyahu is far from being in the shoes of Sharon, who lost the right in one fell swoop when he spoke of occupation and later initiated the disengagement. Last night he received the unequivocal backing of two right-wingers who opposed the disengagement: Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, a very important Likud figure, and Minister Yuli Edelstein, a resident of the settlement Elon Shvut. However, while Sharon became the world's darling after he radically changed his ways, it is highly doubtful that Netanyahu will enjoy the same maneuvering room that the father of the settlements had.
Netanyahu positioned himself last night in a more central location. Where will he go now? He is aiming for the U.S. and President Obama. If it were up to him, he would be glad to bear the Likud's criticism and let the right blow its steam over the next day, accusing him of going too far. That way, he would enjoy both worlds: He would receive credit from Obama, but not have to pay the cost in terms of his coalition.
As for Tzipi Livni and Kadima: Not so fast. As long as the coalition remains stable, Kadima will remain in the opposition. Many of Livni's colleagues are dying to join the government, but Netanyahu's speech will not bring them to the promised land.