Round One to Netanyahu, narrowly

John has already analyzed Benjamin Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech. I’ll simply add that, from the look of things, the speech is a solid success.

The main purpose of the speech, I imagine, was to articulate a position on relations with the Palestinians, including the possibility of a Palestinian state, that is consistent with Netanyahu’s understanding of Israel’s interests and would be viewed as reasonable by most Israelis. Articulating such a position would likely head off any efforts by President Obama to undermine Netanyahu’s political fortunes. For if Netanyahu’s position were viewed as reasonable, then any crticism by Obama would seem unreasonable, and thus would not harm Netanyahu appreciably.

Netanyahu appears to have succeeded. The best evidence is that, as John notes, the U.S. is reacting positively to the speech. This must mean the Obama administation realizes that Netanyahu struck the right chord with the Israelis and that criticizing the speech would only cause Obama to lose credibility with them. Obama has already lost enough credibility by virtue of his unreasonable position on settlements, from which Netanyahu did not back down today. It is not in his interest to lose more.

In expressing satisfaction with the speech, the administration probably had to swallow hard. First, as noted, Netanyahu did not back down on settlements — he upheld the right of settlers to expand settlements through “natural growth” construction. Second, although Netanyahu spoke of a Palestinian state, he insisted that such a state be de-militarized, which arguably means it would not be a true state. In addtion, Netanyahu took a hard line on other issues, such as the “right of return” (“we need a clear agreement to solve the Palestinian refugee problem outside of the borders of the State of Israel”) and Hamas (the Palestinians “must overcome Hamas. Israel will not sit down at conference table with terrorist who seek to destroy it”).

But swallow hard the administration did. It described the speech as “an important step forward” and choose to focus on Netanyahu’s “endorsement” of the goal of a Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel, while not commenting on the “de-militarized” part.

Thus ends, I hope, Round One of Obama vs. Netanyahu. I give it to Netanyahu, narrowly.

Both men can now return to their corners — Netanyahu to figure out what, if anything to do about Iran; Obama to focus on his takeover of large chunks of the U.S. economy. There will be more rounds, but perhaps not for a while.

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