“I did what I had to.” Without breaking confidences, that’s the essence of what Bibi Netanyahu told me privately after his highly anticipated speech yesterday at Bar-Ilan University. And that’s exactly what happened: He recognized that there should be a Palestinian state, side-by-side with Israel, with the means to effectively and autonomously govern itself, but without the means to threaten its neighbor. That wasn’t an easy thing for him to do, given all his constituencies.
Bibi reinforced his position in my post-speech conversation with him, quipping: “When Moses came out of Egypt, he didn’t turn right and go to the Sudan.”
I was in Israel for the speech, but rather than attend in person and not understand what was being said, I chose to watch the translated Hebrew-to-English version on television. My initial reaction was that Bibi was speaking too fast, but the Israelis I was watching with informed me that it was a normal rhythm for Hebrew. He projected well, and was actually quite eloquent.
While an affirmative statement of Israel’s position, there was one part where Bibi deliberately responded to what Obama said in Cairo. Obama had linked the founding of Israel with the tragedy of the Holocaust, and Netanyahu’s message was powerful: If Israel had already existed, there wouldn’t have been a Holocaust. He also talked about the Jewish people’s multimillennium ties to the land, a point he reinforced in my post-speech conversation with him, with a quick quip: “When Moses came out of Egypt, he didn’t turn right and go to the Sudan.”
For Bibi, the choice boils down to this: Is he going to be Yitzhak Shamir or Menachem Begin? Shamir said “no,” and Begin did what was necessary—walking away from a huge amount of captured territory—in order to make a lasting peace. Bibi did what he had to. His decision will evolve and won’t be easy, especially since the Palestinians have enormous issues of their own in terms of achieving a consensus on pursuing peace with Israel. But this speech was a huge step forward in terms of opening up the dialogue.
Mortimer B. Zuckerman is chairman and editor in chief of U.S. News & World Report and publisher of the New York Daily News. He is also the co-founder and chairman of Boston Properties Inc. He is a trustee of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, and the International Institute of Strategic Studies.