Netanyahu's Revolution

Ari Shavit
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Ari Shavit

A week ago my piece about the seven-word formula - a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside a Jewish Israeli state - appeared on this page. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adopted this formula, making it the cornerstone of Israeli policy in his "Bar-Ilan speech" on Sunday.

Netanyahu, however, added two fundamental elements to the formula: a solid international guarantee that the Palestinian state is indeed demilitarized, and a clear Palestinian recognition of Israel's being a Jewish state. According to his worldview, the international guarantee to limit the sovereignty of Palestine completes the international guarantee that Herzl requested for Israel's establishment.

But the Palestinians must recognize the nation-state of the Jewish people in order to prove that they have accepted the Jews' right to sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Netanyahu's peace is threefold - Israel accepts the Palestinian state, the Palestinians recognize the Jewish state and the international community ensures that the Palestinian state doesn't endanger the Jewish state's existence.

In a certain sense, Netanyahu's move is in keeping with Ariel Sharon's approach. The prime minister realized that he was trapped in a "corral" (as Sharon described it), pushed into a corner and isolated by international pressure. Thus, like the post-2000 Sharon, he decided to break out of the corner and take the initiative. Netanyahu accepted the principle of dividing the land in a controlled manner to avoid an imposed partition. In order to prevent a swift, dangerous retreat to the 1967 borders he proposed a painful compromise. Thus he found himself uttering the two taboo words he had sworn he would never say: Palestinian state.

In another sense, Netanyahu's move is in the style of Ehud Barak. Like post-2000 Barak, he realized that neither the world nor the Israeli public understand what Israel is fighting over. Like Barak, Netanyahu grasped that when the battle line is the occupation and the settlements, Israel is in an inferior position. Therefore, like Barak, he decided to move Israel's position to the commanding heights. As Barak challenged the Palestinians at Camp David, Netanyahu challenged them at Bar-Ilan University. By focusing the debate on the core issues, Netanyahu shifted the Israeli-Palestinian front line from the "natural growth" in the settlements to the issue of survival and the right of the Jewish national home to exist.

In a third sense, Netanyahu's statement was a step along the path of Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin was murdered believing that Jerusalem must remain united and the Jordan Valley must remain in Israeli hands. Rabin was murdered believing that the final status arrangement would be based on establishing a Palestinian state with limited sovereignty. After the Bar-Ilan speech, Netanyahu, too, believes the final status arrangement will be based on establishing such a Palestinian state. Ironically and tragically, the hated Bibi has become the one continuing Rabin's path.

And yet, Netanyahu is not Rabin, Barak or Sharon. He is not a security-oriented Mapainik but rather a revisionist statesman. As a student of Zeev Jabotinsky, Netanyahu fomented a conceptual revolution. Unlike these three predecessors, he is not trying to protect Israel by means of security arrangements, but rather by means of seminal principles. Unlike them he is not trying to engineer a practical arrangement, but rather to establish peace on a clear, solid ideological foundation. Unlike them he is standing proudly, insisting on Jewish history, Jews' rights and the principle of Jewish sovereignty.

He may or may not succeed. He might lead the country to peace, or bring it to war. But he made a move of revolutionary significance. Netanyahu not only took a courageous personal step, he generated an intellectual, ideological turnabout.

With the seven-word formula he changed the discourse on the conflict from its very foundations. He set an unprecedented challenge before the Palestinian nation and the international community. After the Bar-Ilan speech the question on the world agenda is not only when and where the Israelis will withdraw, but what the Palestinians, Arabs, Europeans and Americans will do to ensure that the great Israeli withdrawal does not end in disaster.