Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not have had anything new to offer the Palestinians but in a rare interview with Arab media he walked a fine line in signaling his support for the mass anti-government protests against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.
Mr. Netanyahu’s careful choice of words, his reluctance to come out and wholeheartedly support the protests, and his reference to secret contacts with Mr. Assad’s regime were carefully calibrated to prevent the Syrian leader from construing his remarks as evidence of foreign and particularly Israeli instigation of the four month-long uprising in Syria.
Mr. Netanyahu prefaced his remarks on Syria by saying that Israel does not interfere in Syrian affairs and that anything he says would be used against the “genuine reform that people would like to see in Syria.”
The prime minister added that “the young people of Syria deserve a better future” and noted that “obviously (they are) showing enormous courage in the face of strong brutality.” He stopped short however of condemning the Assad regime’s crackdown or joining US and European calls for a halt to the violence and genuine political and economic reform.
Mr. Assad has repeatedly blamed the protests on armed gangs instigated by foreign powers and has used that to justify his brutal crackdown. Mr. Netanyahu bolstered his effort to prevent Mr. Assad from using his remarks for his own purposes by noting that Israel officials, including himself, had tried to achieve peace in secret talks with Syrian officials. Mr. Netanyahu did not disclose who his counterpart was, leaving open the possibility that it was Mr. Assad himself.
By doing so, Mr. Netanyahu made it more difficult for Mr. Assad to point to his remarks without having to justify secret contacts of his own. Mr. Netanyahu went on to deny suggestions that Israel would prefer Mr. Assad to hold on to power because he had effectively maintained an armed peace along Syria’s border with Israel.
Noting Israeli support for the anti-Syrian Cedar revolt in Lebanon following the 2005 killing of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in which Syria was believed to have been implicated and that according to Mr. Netanyahu was hijacked by Shiite militia Hezbollah and its Syrian supporters, the prime minister said it was up to Syrians to choose their next government – language that indicated that the prime minister was thinking beyond Mr. Assad’s rule.
Mr. Netanyahu said he would have like to have seen the secret talks result in a formal peace treaty with Syria but that key issue was keeping the border quiet and “hope for a good future for the people of Syria.” Mr. Netanyahu added that “they deserve a good future. One of peace and one of freedom.”
Mr. Netanyahu used his cautious support for the protesters to caution Syria as well as Iran and Hezbollah not to heighten tension on the Israeli-Lebanese border in a bid to detract attention from the struggle inside Syria. He said this would be bad for the peoples of Syria and Lebanon, signaling Syrians that Israel was not seeking to undermine their protests, a message designed to build on the fact that the Arab-Israeli conflict is at this point not high on the protesters’ agenda.
On peace with the Palestinians, Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks were boilerplate repetitions of his position that Israel was willing to negotiate peace with anyone willing to recognize it as well as the rights of the people. Mr. Netanyahu’s phrasing referred to his demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel not just as a state but as a Jewish state but did not express that explicitly as he has done in the past.
He reiterated his refusal to negotiate with Hamas because of its refusal to acknowledge Israel, but said that everything could be negotiated. Mr. Netanyahu however staked his claim to East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war, by saying talks with the Palestinians could be held in his home or in Ramallah.
Perhaps the most interesting thing in Mr. Netanyahu’s discussion of the Palestinian problem was not what he said but what he didn’t say. Mr. Netanyahu said nothing about Palestinian plans to gain recognition in September by the United Nations General Assembly of their statehood based on the borders prior to the 1967 war in which beyond Jerusalem, Israel also conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Israel has gone into tailspin in its likely futile efforts to stop the Palestinians from tabling their request for recognition. Mr. Netanyahu’s Al Arabiya interview constitutes a missed opportunity to put forward a bold proposal that would give Palestine Authority president Mahmoud Abbas reason to return to the negotiating table instead of going to the General Assembly. There was nothing in his remarks that would give Mr. Abbas pause.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior fellow at the Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org)