Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dialed down his intense rhetoric about the threat posed by a nuclear Iran in his long-awaited public response to a tightening squeeze from the Obama administration on Sunday.
The Israeli leader, who in the past has responded to U.S. pressure for movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front with fierce talk about the Iranian menace, barely mentioned the subject in a speech that won praise from many on the right and the left and reassured American Jewish leaders worried about a looming breach between the two allies over issues such as Iran and Jewish settlements.
"The speech was fundamentally different from past statements in terms of Iran," said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. "There was only a passing comment, instead of Values To Heal America Iran being the absolute focal point of Israel’s concerns. That was a big change."
Kahn said that Netanyahu’s downplaying of Iran in Sunday’s speech suggests Israeli "accommodation" with the Obama administration’s policy shift on Iran, now that the president has indicated that efforts at dialogue won’t be open-ended — a timeline that may be more important after this week’s contested elections and widespread rioting by Iranians convinced the vote was rigged.
The speech indicates that "Israel is stepping back temporarily to see if the president’s new approach on Iran works," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. "And it’s an effort to make sure Israel is not the center of attention on the Iran issue."
The tamped-down rhetoric on Iran may also be meant to take some of the heat off Netanyahu on issues where accommodation seems more difficult to achieve, including the explosive question of Jewish settlements.
While agreeing in his speech that the footprint of current settlements will not be expanded, Netanyahu firmly rejected the administration’s demand that a settlement freeze include what the Israeli government calls natural growth.
"The territorial issues will be discussed in a permanent agreement," Netanyahu said. "Until then we have no intention to build new settlements or set aside land for new settlements. But there is a need to have people live normal lives and let mothers and fathers raise their children like everyone in the world. The settlers are not enemies of peace. They are our brothers and sisters."
The speech had a little to please almost everyone.
The Orthodox Union, which is skeptical about new land concessions and opposes any division of Jerusalem as part of a settlement, praised Netanyahu for a "significant and bold speech which reflected a broad Israeli consensus, and effectively challenged proponents of a Palestinian state to understand that Israel will not only accept, but even assist in, the creation of a Palestinian state so long as doing so does not and cannot threaten the physical security and Jewish integrity of Israel."
J Street, the pro-peace process lobby and political action committee, welcomed Netanyahu’s "acceptance of the principle that a Palestinian state should exist alongside the state of Israel. We second the reaction of President Obama that this is an important step forward and we welcome the president’s continued commitment to work toward a two-state solution and comprehensive, regional peace."
But the group also expressed disappointment at Netanyahu’s "failure to acknowledge Israel’s commitment to a full settlement freeze on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, including natural growth. … While we believe that Israel should immediately stop all settlement construction, we also believe, as the prime minister said, that negotiations must begin ‘immediately without preconditions’ on a final-status agreement that sets the borders of Israel and the new Palestinian state."
Even the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), a fierce opponent of Palestinian statehood and new West Bank land concessions, praised "several aspects" of the speech, including the prime minister’s claim that the conflict’s origin was the Arab states refusal to accept the idea of a Jewish state or seriously work to end terror and incitement.
But ZOA also rejected his acceptance of a limited Palestinian state.
"Netanyahu is the leader of the camp that for years has opposed and spelt out the danger of establishing a Palestinian state," the group said in a statement. "Such a major concession flies in the face of six decades of Palestinian and general Arab refusal to accept Israel as sovereign Jewish state," and said it conflicted with past statements by the prime minister portraying statehood as a mortal danger to Israel.
While some on the left said Netanyahu’s conditions on Palestinian statehood — including acceptance of Israel as a "Jewish" state and his rigid call for the state to be demilitarized — were potential poison pills, Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv and a consultant with the left-of-center Israel Policy Forum (IPF), praised the president’s approach.
"It was a very effective speech for the Israel public; it expressed pretty widespread views about Israel’s predicament," Lewis said. "He did just enough in the speech to get a favorable reaction from the White House and to avoid losing support in his own cabinet. In terms of content, it doesn’t change much, but it allows the process to go forward, for [special U.S. Middle East envoy George] Mitchell to work slowly but surely to get negotiations going."
Netanyahu’s speech was "carefully designed to walk between the raindrops," Lewis said.
But in the end, he added, the prime minister’s apparent nod to an administration in Washington that wants to move quickly toward a two-state solution will count for little if it is not followed up by unambiguous action.
There is also little evidence the speech moved a Palestinian leadership that has disappointed the Obama administration with its apparent decision to let Washington do all the heavy lifting in the creation of a Palestinian state.
"I was struck by the self-defeating way [Palestinian negotiator] Saab Erekat and others responded to the speech," said Robert Lieber, a Georgetown University professor of government. "What they demonstrated was a complete unwillingness to address the hard realities of the situation."
Lieber said it is "too early" to know if the speech averted a looming confrontation over settlements.
"You’ll probably get some push on settlements, probably in sotto voce," he said. "But I think the administration is pleased that he did talk about a two-state solution and that his tone was moderate."
In the wake of Netanyahu’s long-awaited speech, there was a growing belief Washington and Jerusalem could find a compromise formula on Jewish settlements that would allow Netanyahu to keep his fragile right-wing coalition together while allowing the Obama administration to make the case it had forced a change in Israeli behavior.
"There’s a lot more talk now about finding some compromise language that would let both sides to claim a sort of victory," said a longtime pro-Israel activist here who asked not to be identified. "Netanyahu knows now that Obama is serious; Obama knows after the speech that Bibi is trying to walk some very dangerous political lines at home. The shift in Israeli rhetoric on Iran may be part of that process; Bibi gave something on Iran, with the expectation that the administration will be a little more flexible on settlements than [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton suggested."
But the settlement question continues to loom as a ticking time bomb in Israel’s relations with the rest of the world.
This week the European Union signaled that improved trade relations with the Jewish state hinge on a complete freeze on settlements, not just on Netanyahu’s acknowledgment of the need for a two-state solution.
Last week the Reform movement’s rabbinic arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), repeated its strong opposition to settlement expansion, even for reasons of "natural growth."
But for many Jewish leaders the speech was greeted with a collective sigh of relief.
The speech "served to clarify his positions and his commitment to the search for peace," said the AJC’s David Harris. "Any public tension has been diminished as a result; it’s too early to tell if it’s been eliminated. But many American Jews will feel more confident and comfortable with that speech in their pockets."