The Politician’s Speech (4)

When politicians speak, we ought to listen — but we must listen attentively, critically, and with the understanding that their language is designed to mask the truth rather than reveal it. I am beginning to realize that listening to a politician’s speech is probably as much of an art as speaking like one. Neither of these is my expertise, but this handicap is not preventing me from enjoying the process of dissecting and deconstructing Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress. As I continue in my effort to comprehend, to the best of my ability, exactly what it is that Netanyahu is saying in this text, I am also learning some of the rules for interpreting political texts in general. One rule says that we should always look for unacknowledged assumptions, subtle or tacit suggestions, and assertions that are disguised as arguments. According to another rule, we should pay close attention to keywords, determine the speaker’s implied meanings, notice any inconsistencies, and try to discern the role such words may be playing in creating specific suggestions or motivations in the audience.

Let us now return to the text before us.

In his speech to the US Congress on May 24, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly emphasized that his country has always sought “peace” with the Palestinian people. The fact that this highly desired “peace” has not yet been achieved after more than sixty years is not due to Israel’s fault. Rather, this lack of “peace” is the result of the stubbornness of the Palestinians, their irrational hatred for the Jewish people, and their preference for conflict. Here is what Netanyahu said:

If the benefits of peace with the Palestinians are so clear, why has peace eluded us? Because all six Israeli prime ministers since the signing of the Oslo Accords agreed to establish a Palestinian state, myself included; so why has peace not been achieved?

Because so far, the Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it.

You see, our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state; it’s always been about the existence of the Jewish state. (Applause.) This is what this conflict is about. (Extended applause.)

So the real obstacle to “peace,” from Netanyahu’s perspective, is not that Israel is unwilling to recognize a Palestinian state; the real obstacle is that the Palestinians are (and have always been) unwilling to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Is this claim true? Netanyahu has been a member of Israel’s Likud Party since 1988, and the Likud party’s official Platform includes several provisions that may appear to be inconsistent with his position regarding Israel’s willingness to accept a Palestinian state. Here are a few samples of what the Likud Party believes:

The Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza are the realization of Zionist values. Settlement of the land is a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and constitutes an important asset in the defense of the vital interests of the State of Israel. The Likud will continue to strengthen and develop these communities and will prevent their uprooting.

The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.

The Palestinians can run their lives freely in the framework of self-rule, but not as an independent and sovereign state. Thus, for example, in matters of foreign affairs, security, immigration and ecology, their activity shall be limited in accordance with imperatives of Israel’s existence, security and national needs.

Jerusalem is the eternal, united capital of the State of Israel and only of Israel. The government will flatly reject Palestinian proposals to divide Jerusalem, including the plan to divide the city presented to the Knesset by the Arab factions and supported by many members of Labor and Meretz.

Can Netanyahu reconcile his own position with that of the Likud Party regarding the question of a Palestinian state? The answer to this question is in the affirmative, but with certain qualifications. Yes, a Palestinian state is quite acceptable to Israel (1) so long as this state does not include the West Bank or East Jerusalem; (2) so long as it is understood that this state will be neither independent nor sovereign; (3) so long as it is agreed that this state’s “foreign affairs, security, immigration and ecology” will remain under Israeli control; (4) so long as Israel gets to decide precisely where the borders of this state will be drawn; (5) so long as the Palestinians accept that their state will be completely de-militarized; and (6) so long as it can be ensured that this state will be “without control of its airspace.” This last point is from Netanyahu’s 2009 speech, in which he first announced his embrace of the two-state solution.

Israel and its Prime Minister are indeed willing to accept a Palestinian state — provided that the six conditions mentioned above are satisfied. Looking at the conditions, however, one must ask the obvious but crucial question: What kind of state would that be?

I would like to suggest that in Netanyahu’s use of the word “state,” we are faced with yet another Orwellian situation.

The Israeli Prime Minister frequently mentions “Jewish state” and “Palestinian state” in the same sentence or the same paragraph, implying through this juxtaposition that he has in mind a single, straightforward definition of the word “state” that applies equally to the two cases. A casual listener is likely to assume that both phrases refer to the same, unproblematic concept of “state,” with the only difference that the “state” happens to be “Jewish” in the first case and “Palestinian” in the second case. In view of the six conditions that Israel wants to apply to any future “Palestinian state,” however, such an assumption would be a serious error. But notice how the speaker encourages his audience to accept that assumption as true.

Two years ago, I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples — a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state.

The phrase “two states for two peoples” suggests that there will be parity between them. An even stronger impression is created by the word “alongside,” which evokes a visual image of equality, and perhaps of cooperation. As we have seen, however, Netanyahu has absolutely no intention of allowing a Palestinian “state” any kind of parity or equality vis-a-vis Israel. He is merely conveying a vague but positive idea because it makes his position appear more rational and altruistic than it actually is.

The Israeli Prime Minister then goes on say:

We seek a peace in which they’ll be neither Israel’s subjects nor its citizens. They should enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people living in their own state. (Applause.) They should enjoy a prosperous economy, where their creativity and initiative can flourish.

These remarks are supposed to show the speaker’s generosity and sincere goodwill towards the Palestinians, while reinforcing the assumption that the meaning of the word “state” is perfectly stable. Notice the succession of emotionally positive words that Americans are especially likely to find appealing: national, life, dignity, free, viable, independent, own state, enjoy, prosperous, creativity, initiative, flourish. Yet, in light of the conditions that must be fulfilled before Israel will allow a Palestinian “state,” an attentive and critical listener should be able to see through Netanyahu’s rhetorical screen of smoke and fog.

In using the word “state,” Netanyahu is performing a sleight of hand, a magical trick. When Netanyahu utters the phrase “Jewish state” he has one particular definition of “state” in mind, but when he uses the phrase “Palestinian state” he is implying an entirely different definition. Using the same word twice, so close to each other, while implying — but not acknowledging — two drastically different meanings is nothing short of deliberate deception. Only a politician can pull this off so effectively.

Since the meaning of the word “state” is so unstable in Netanyahu’s text that it doesn’t remain the same even within a single sentence, we have every reason to be suspicious of his claim that Israel is willing to recognize a “Palestinian state” but the Palestinians are unwilling to accept a “Jewish state.” According to the Israeli Prime Minister’s own position, there is no comparison between the “state” that he wants to have for the Jewish people and the “state” that he is offering to the Palestinian people. The two entities — one real and the other proposed — are so different from each other that they cannot possibly belong to the same category or be given the same title. If we take a car and remove its engine, seats, doors, wheels, tires, and windshields, is it still okay to call it a car? After we take into account the full impact of the debilitating conditions that Israel wants to impose, we cannot escape the conclusion that “state” cannot be the right word to describe whatever it is that the Palestinians are supposed to receive with gratitude. Perhaps “slave colony” would be a better substitute.

As we notice the deceptive way in which Netanyahu uses the word “state” with two incompatible meanings, the hollowness of his claim becomes apparent. It is not the case that the Palestinians are unwilling to accept a”Jewish state.” What they are unwilling to accept — and quite rightly so — is the Israeli concept of what a “Palestinian state” should look like. They are refusing to be content with eating bread crumbs off the floor and are demanding a seat at the dinner table just like everyone else. Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians are being unreasonable is tantamount to the claim that the few crumbs they are getting are as nutritious as the seven course dinner that he himself is enjoying at the table. They are both “food,” aren’t they?

Thus, in Netanyahu’s view of history it is the Palestinian people who have been the single most important obstacle to “peace.” He finds it incredible and pitiful that they have missed so many golden opportunities for improving their lot.  In his own words:

In 1947, the U.N. voted to partition the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews said yes; the Palestinians said no.

In recent years, the Palestinians twice refused generous offers by Israeli prime ministers to establish a Palestinian state on virtually all the territory won by Israel in the Six Day War. They were simply unwilling to end the conflict.

Let’s try to recognize the unacknowledged assumptions behind these statements.

Netanyahu is claiming that for more than sixty years the Palestinian people have been consistently acting against their own best interests. This assertion raises important questions: Why have the Palestinians preferred “conflict” over “peace” for so long? Why did they miss so many opportunities to establish their own state? Why have they behaved in such self-defeating ways?

Netanyahu does not answer these questions directly, but the sentence at the end of the last quote may offer us a clue to his thinking: “They were simply unwilling to end the conflict.” Note the connotations of the word “simply.” We often use this word to express a sense that a given phenomenon is beyond our capacity to fully grasp or explain; that it is just the way it is — there is nothing anyone can do about it and there is no point in asking why it is so. It simply is.

Hence, to say that the Palestinians were simply unwilling to do the right thing is meant to suggest that they had no reasonable grounds for the choices they made. They simply made them — as if they were simply incapable of rational thinking or they were simply ignorant of what was happening around them or they were simply caught up in their stubborn hatred for the Jewish people. Netanyahu’s use of the word “simply” is also intended to absolve Israel of any and all responsibility, since everyone knows that Israel has sought nothing but “peace” with its neighbors. In other words, whatever may be the explanation for the puzzling behavior of Palestinians, it is absurd to even think that it could have any causal connection with anything that Israel had done or was doing to them.

Read the sentence again: “They were simply unwilling to end the conflict.” I can see at least three unacknowledged assumptions underlying this sentence: (1) continuing their conflict with Israel was never in the best interest of the Palestinian people; (2) the Palestinians were always fully aware that continuing their conflict with Israel was not going to help them get what they wanted; (3) the decision and power to either continue the conflict or to end it immediately was always and entirely in the hands of the Palestinians. Once these tacit assumptions have been brought to light, the speaker’s message becomes crystal clear: The Palestinians could have ended their misery at any time, simply by choosing to end their conflict with Israel, but they simply did not. Incomprehensible as this behavior may appear to Israelis and Americans, the regrettable fact is that the Palestinians are simply their own worst enemies.

Once again, we can notice the imperial arrogance in Netanyahu’s tone and choice of words, as well as his contempt for the non-European gentiles. In his view, the Palestinian people are so bereft of commonsense that each time they are offered an opportunity for statehood they deliberately squander it without any good reason. By not giving any explanation for the behavior of the Palestinian people over more than sixty years, while describing that behavior as completely stupid and self-defeating, Netanyahu is relying upon, and perpetuating, the old Orientalist dichotomy between a rational West and an irrational East. The irony is that the same dichotomy was used in the nineteenth century by European gentiles to justify their own disdain for the Jewish people!

There is an additional significance to Netanyahu’s use of the word “simply” — it suggests that the whole Israeli-Palestinian issue is itself very “simple” (as opposed to complex, multidimensional, or contested). This reading is consistent with his view that the entire credit for seeking “peace” goes to the Israelis and the entire blame for maintaining the conflict belongs to the Palestinians. Apparently, the Israeli Prime Minister is convinced that his own way of interpreting the problem is the only rational way of doing so, which is why he sees no point in trying to understand the predicament of the Palestinian from their viewpoint. He can find no valid reason why, as he puts it, the Palestinians are “unwilling to end the conflict.” It does not occur to him that Israel’s “offers” of statehood may have been “generous” from the Israeli viewpoint but they were not so from the Palestinian viewpoint. I am allowing these people to eat all the bread crumbs that fall from the table, and they do not find this generous? What’s wrong with them?

A close reading of Netanyahu’s own words can help expose the real causes behind the continuing conflict in the Middle East. First, his refusal to make any effort to understand the Palestinian perspective — or to even entertain the possibility that they may have legitimate grievances and demands — indicates his unwillingness to treat his neighbors as equal human beings; the same conclusion can also be reached by looking at the six conditions he wants to impose on any future Palestinian state. Second, his inability to comprehend why any Palestinian in their right mind would reject Israel’s “generous offers” of statehood indicates his unwillingness to empathize with the very people who are supposed to be his negotiation partners.

It seems to me that if the stronger party in a given conflict refuses to empathize with the other side’s viewpoint, and if that stronger party also insists on treating the weaker side with contempt, then I need not look anywhere else to explain why the conflict is not coming to an end.

One last point. Notice the phrase “territory won by Israel in the Six Day War” in the passage quoted above. Netanyahu’s nonchalant use of the word “won” in relation to “territory” is quite significant in that it reveals, perhaps inadvertently, an otherwise unacknowledged element of imperialist and colonialist thinking. In premodern times, it was indeed the case that kingdoms and empire could “win” new territories through war and conquest; moreover, this was believed to be a legitimate enterprise by the colonizing empires of Europe well into the twentieth century. However, with the end of the Second World War and the establishment of the United Nations, and especially with the signing of the Fourth Geneva Conventions in 1949, acquisition of land by means of conquest is no longer considered a legitimate way of expanding one’s dominion. This legal reality makes Netanyahu’s phrase “territory won by Israel” an illegitimate euphemism for “territory occupied and annexed by Israel in violation of International Law.” More ominously, Netanyahu’s total lack of self-consciousness as he said the words “territory won by Israel” suggests certain dangerous assumptions on his part, including “ends justify means” and “might is right.”


  1. Excellent piece. I disagree, however, with any notion that Netanyahu’s description of territory won in 1967 as being inadvertent, nonchalant, or unconscious. Talk to most supporters of Israel, especially right wing supporters and you will find that, regardless of international norms or law, one of the primary underlying assumptions of their whole understanding of the conflict and the ‘peace process’ is that Israel absolutely has a right to territory it won in wars and should not ‘surrender’ any of that territory without compensation and only if Israel believes it is in its best interest to do so. And the bipartisan Congressional ovation brigades agree completely with this as well.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I did not mean to say that the use of the word “won” was inadvertent or unintentional. I meant that it was used without any sense of unease or irony, or any awareness that it implies something illegal or even questionable. I agree with you that the more pro-Israel a person is, the more he or she is likely to insist that “conquest” is equivalent to justified ownership. This is like a child claiming that a toy belongs to him simply because it is currently in his possession; except that Netanyahu is not an innocent child. In essence, his use of the word “won” is tantamount to a refusal to acknowledge the legal difference between “de facto” and “de jure.”

  2. Of course I agree with what you are saying. And I think highlighting the contradiction with international law is important. But International Law is more of an aspiration than a reality, anyways. Powerful countries routinely ignore it, and whether they find it helpful to say this explicitly or not, operate with the assumption that they have the absolute right to disobey it if they do not find it in their interest. Interesting dialogue about this subject on Blogging Heads TV between David Frum and Glenn Greenwald. Frum is very clear and open about the fact that he doesn’t think there can be such a thing as international law which binds sovereigns, to him, this is the whole definition of a sovereign. Greenwald tries to argue that this is precisely what the U.S. claimed the Nuremberg trials were supposed to demonstrate was not the case. In any event, we may agree with Greenwald as a moral question and therefore we can use this as a moral argument against Israel and Netanyahu but as you mention the de facto (power politics) reality is on Israel’s side and the question is whether a de jure argument can really be made when there is no one to enforce such a claim. Even when entities choose to act in the name of international law, they are doing so based on their determination of their interests, and not as far as I can tell out of some feeling that they are obliged to defend the principle of international law.

    I may seem to be belaboring something here, but I actually think understanding this is important, especially as many contemporary Muslim scholars state the fact of certain international law principles as being grounds for understanding the Islamic law of jihad and other things differently. I am not against the conclusions these scholars are drawing but I do find the stated notion that we have certain International law norms in our time to be naive or simplistic…in short these are still aspirations and do not actually reflect some kind of settled reality.

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