Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often complains that people doubt the sincerity of his commitment to achieving peace with the Palestinians. He devoted his annual remarks to the UN General Assembly last week to persuading the skeptics. “I remain committed to a vision of peace based on two states for two peoples.” For added emphasis, he invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to address the Knesset in Jerusalem, and himself to address the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah.
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The idea is evocative: Palestinian flags waving on the Knesset plaza, the Israel Defense Forces orchestra playing the Palestinian national anthem “Fida’i” (“warrior”), cabinet ministers Ofir Akunis and Ayelet Shaked cheering Abbas. Then the reciprocal visit: “Hatikva” playing at the Muqata presidential compound in Ramallah, Netanyahu trying out a paragraph or two in Arabic, former Palestinian security chief Jibril Rajoub requesting Netanyahu’s autograph for his kids, and the two leaders performing a duet of verses from Isaiah and suras from the Koran.
This idyll is preferable to the ping-pong of accusations and burrowing into the past that is typical of Netanyahu and Abbas. Perhaps Netanyahu is secretly preparing a dramatic political move, which would explain his meetings with hundreds of journalists in the past few weeks and the election atmosphere of Israeli politics of late. If we are to believe him, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who calls Abbas an enemy, and the dozens of Likud cabinet members and Knesset members who oppose evacuating the Amona outpost, are simply out of the loop.
But if Netanyahu wants us to take him seriously, and not to treat his speech as just another momentary gimmick, he must begin the peace at home. He must absorb the fact of the Palestinian national movement, recognizing its ethos and its legitimate aspirations, even when they clash with the ethos and aspirations of most Israelis. While Netanyahu was speaking in New York, the Israeli Oscars — the Ophir Awards — were being handed out in Ashdod. Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev walked out in protest when the Mahmoud Darwish poem “ID Card” (“Write it down, I’m an Arab”) was read, saying she would not be an audience to his poem.
Darwish is considered the Palestinian national poet, and his poetry expresses the tragedy and aspirations of his people. They are rooted in the conflict, just as Regev’s military career and Netanyahu’s reproving speeches are. But for the prime minister’s vision — that peace will break out and Palestine will be founded — to be realized, Israelis must look in the mirror held up by Darwish, the Galilee native. There are no shortcuts or detours. Regev’s departure, to which Netanyahu gave his support on Saturday, was not only impolite. Anyone who closes his ears to the feelings of the other side cannot genuinely extend a hand in conciliation — and the prime minister’s peace speech will be forgotten like a hollow gesture.