Is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress truly about Israel’s security? Or is the speech, as Tennessee Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen dubbed it, a “reckless” piece of “high theater for a reelection campaign in Israel”?
The answer to this question will be apparent to all once we hear it. If Netanyahu is sincerely concerned about lasting security for the Jewish state, then he will also address—in detail—his vision for a Palestinian state and the rebuilding of Gaza.
If his speech is simply about the threat of Iran, then it’s nothing more than a campaign stop two weeks before the upcoming Israeli election.
Now, just so it’s clear, I too believe that Iran with nuclear weapons could pose a threat. But Iran is apparently the only thing Netanyahu wants to discuss. In fact, last week, Israel’s comptroller released a report about a growing housing crisis that is making it impossible for some young Israelis to afford housing. Netanyahu responded that housing costs are an issue, but “the biggest challenge of our lives is preventing Iran from going nuclear.” (Netanyahu was swiftly criticized by his political rivals for this response.)
Netanyahu’s remarks remind me of Rudy Giuliani’s behavior during his failed 2008 run for president, when he seemed to respond to every question by invoking 9/11. In fact, Joe Biden mocked Giuliani by saying that all the former mayor needs to makes a sentence is ”a noun and a verb and 9/11.”
Netanyahu has been equally one note for years. When he was first sworn in as prime minster in 2009, he made it clear that Iran, not making peace with the Palestinians, was his priority.
Why? A few reasons. I don’t doubt that the prime minister genuinely does see a nuclear Iran as an existential threat. But Iran is also an easy issue for a politician to use because it’s an external enemy. Netanyahu can position himself as the savior of Israel.
But the Palestinian issue is far more complex. Israeli public opinion is split on the creation of a Palestinian state, with a December poll finding only about 50 percent now support it. (That number goes up if Palestine is a demilitarized state.)
Add to that the reality that Netanyahu would unlikely ever truly support the creation of a nation called Palestine. When he ran for prime minister in 2009, Netanyahu called the U.S.-sponsored peace talks a waste of time and argued that the Palestinians weren’t ready to rule themselves.
True, Netanyahu had a charge of heart a few months into taking office (translation: the Obama administration pressured him) and he announced his support for a demilitarized Palestinian state. And even in his last speech before Congress, in 2011, he said, “We recognize that a Palestinian state must be big enough to be viable, independent, and prosperous.”
But words mean nothing in Middle East politics. Look at what Netanyahu has done on the ground in both the West Bank and Gaza.
Between 2009 and 2014, Jewish settlements in the West Bank have grown at twice the rate of the population within Israel. In 2014 alone, new settlement construction climbed by 40 percent, which is “a record high for at least a decade,” per the Israeli organization Peace Now. As the Israeli Human rights group B’Tselem noted, the settler population in West Bank jumped from 341,000 in 2012 to over 530,000 by 2014.
And life for Palestinians in the West Bank is as challenging as ever. The IMF recently noted that the Palestinian economy has contracted since last summer’s Gaza war, with unemployment in the West Bank now at 19 percent.
That’s even before Netanyahu’s administration refused to forward to the Palestinian Authority (PA) the taxes it collects on its behalf. Why? Not for any act of violence, but because the PA pursued the diplomatic avenue of applying for membership to the International Criminal Court. Consequently, the PA is on the verge of collapse per Secretary of State John Kerry, because these taxes are two-thirds of the PA’s net revenues.
And Gaza is far worse. Six months after the Gaza war that left more than 2,000 dead, including seven Israeli civilians and over 1,400 Palestinians, of whom 495 were children, the tiny piece of land is in shambles.
And a recent report found that because of the strict limits imposed by the Netanyahu administration on what can be imported into Gaza, it would take over 100 years to rebuild the schools, homes, and hospitals destroyed by the Israeli bombardment.
To get a real sense of the conditions in Gaza, I spoke to a few young people there via email. Basel Yazouri, 19 years old, explained that while he lives in a house, some in Gaza live in “handmade tents” that offer little protection from the harsh winter conditions. Yazouri noted that “most of the youth are desperate, because of the lack of opportunities, destruction, and the inability to even leave Gaza because the borders are closed.”
Mousa Tawfiq, 20, added that most young people there feel a sense of hopelessness. As a result, they don’t even dare to dream of a bright future because it would be too cruel. Tawfiq added that the Netanyahu administration is increasing the “chance of hostilities by not rebuilding Gaza.”
Tawfiq’s concerns are echoed by the World Bank, which stated that “a return to violence as we have seen in recent years will remain a clear and present danger” if the economic conditions don’t improve soon.
Bottom line: If Netanyahu is sincere about Israeli security, in his speech he will offer us details—not lip service—about resolving the Palestinian issue. If Netanyahu’s speech is nothing more than sabre rattling at Iran, then we know that it was truly was nothing more than a political campaign stop. My bet: Don’t expect to hear Netanyahu offer anything meaningful—if at all—about the Palestinians.