Substance More Important Than Terminology, Netanyahu Says of ‘Two-State’ Issue

By Patrick Goodenough | May 18, 2009 | 9:47 PM EDT

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Monday, May 18, 2009. (AP Photo/Israeli Government Press Office)

( – Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pointedly declined at the White House on Monday to endorse the so-called “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suggesting that a substantive understanding between the two sides should take precedence over “terminology.”

Behind the smiles and expressions of goodwill, remarks to reporters after the first Oval Office meeting between Netanyahu and President Obama revealed significant differences between the two governments on the road ahead.

Obama twice invoked the “two-state solution” – shorthand for the view that the goal of peace talks must be the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside a shrunken but presumably safer Israel.

Netanyahu spoke instead of a Palestinian entity that fell short of full statehood: “We want them to govern themselves, absent a handful of powers that could endanger the state of Israel.”

He referred to “an arrangement where Palestinians and Israelis live side-by-side in dignity, in security, and in peace,” conditional on Israel retaining the means to defend itself and the Palestinians recognizing Israel’s “permanent legitimacy” as a Jewish state.

“If … the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state, if they fight terror, if they educate their children for peace and to a better future, then I think we can come at a substantive solution that allows the two people to live side-by-side in security and peace and, I add, prosperity, because I’m a great believer in this,” Netanyahu said.

“The terminology will take care of itself if we have the substantive understanding.”

(The Islamist Palestinian group Hamas, which controls Gaza and has a strong presence in the West Bank, has long refused to recognize Israel; its rival, Fatah, is also reluctant to concede a point that could undermine what it calls the “right of return” of 1948 Palestinian refugees and their descendants, now several million strong. “I say this clearly,” Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in Ramallah late last month. “I do not accept the Jewish state, call it what you will.”)

A key theme in the Obama-Netanyahu talks was Iran. Although Netanyahu previously indicated that dealing with the threat posed by Tehran and its nuclear activities should take priority over negotiations with the Palestinians, speaking alongside Obama he said both fronts should be pursued in parallel.

Obama, while saying he recognized Israel’s “legitimate concerns about the possibility of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon,” added that he personally believed progress in Israel-Palestinian peace talks “strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat.”

The president also mused that progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace moves would undercut the appeal and strength of anti-Israel terrorist organizations and their sponsor in Tehran. He referred in this context both to Hamas and Hezbollah, the Shi’ite group which some analysts believe could take control of Lebanon’s government in elections next month.

“Imagine how much less mischief a Hezbollah or a Hamas could do if in fact we had moved a Palestinian-Israeli track in a direction that gave the Palestinian people hope,” Obama said. “And if Hezbollah and Hamas is weakened, imagine how that impacts Iran’s ability to make mischief.”

Without contradicting him, Netanyahu moments later indicated that he was more concerned about the likelihood of Palestinians using newly-acquired territory to set up another “terror base” alongside Israel’s population centers, pointing to Hamas’ use of Gaza as a launching pad for rocket attacks following Israel’s 2005 withdrawal.

“I ask myself, what do we end up with?" the Israeli said. "If we end up with another Gaza … that is something we don’t want to happen, because a terror base next to our cities that doesn’t recognize Israel’s existence and calls for our destruction and asks for our destruction is not arguing peace.”

Obama plans to hold separate meetings later this month with Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He is then scheduled to deliver a speech in Cairo in early June which is expected to encompass his plan for moving towards a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a goal that has eluded Republican and Democratic predecessors alike.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow