Israel's premier reaffirms landmark speech on Palestinian statehood

JERUSALEM -- With general elections two weeks away, current polls continue to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling party the lead. But complacency among his supporters and a series of campaign blunders appear to have eaten away at his support and strengthened his right-wing rival, Naftali Bennett.

While Netanyahu's main rivals on both sides of the political map have published a clear platform on domestic and foreign policy, the ruling party has avoided doing so. Despite a common argument that official party platforms are an anachronism and that most key developments have typically come as a surprise, observers were keen to see how a platform would deal with Netanyahu's landmark Bar-Ilan speech.

Delivered by Netanyahu at Bar-Ilan University shortly after taking office in 2009, the speech was a pivotal moment for the prime minister, the Likud party and perhaps Israeli politics. In it, Netanyahu first said that under certain conditions, he would agree to a Palestinian state.

The last party platform, written before the previous elections, states that Likud will be "prepared for real concessions in return for a real and credible peace" but does not mention the phrase "Palestinian state."

Late last year, Netanyahu and then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the hard-line party Yisrael Beitenu, announced the two parties would run on a joint list. Yisrael Beitenu's platform defines the Palestinians' demand for statehood as a means of masking their real intention, "erasing Israel as a Jewish, Zionist state." A campaign video on the party's website lists one of their achievements during their four years in government as having "thwarted Palestinian declaration of statehood."

When the joint list kick-started their campaign last month, the internal debate about the platform was still ongoing.

After weeks of promises that an updated formal platform was forthcoming, Netanyahu settled the two issues in an interview Sunday. Yes, he said, the principles of the Bar-Ilan speech still apply, but no, there will be no platform.

"We are not publishing a platform; we are continuing the same course we have taken these past four years," Netanyahu told Israel Radio. His invitation to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate still stands, he said, as do Netanyahu's principles for a resolution. 

For a resolution, Netanyahu said, the Palestinians must recognize Israel as the Jewish state, agree to declare an end to conflict and agree that any territory received must be demilitarized. "These are not preconditions for opening negotiations; these are the conditions for concluding them," he stressed.

Lieberman, who has resigned his cabinet post under indictment but is still running for parliament as Netanyahu's senior partner, also made clear the Bar-Ilan speech would serve as "foundation guidelines for the next government."

Like Netanyahu, Lieberman holds the Palestinians responsible for the deadlocked peace talks but said Israel has "no imperialistic ambitions." This comment was most likely intended for Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, who firmly opposes a Palestinian state and calls for the annexation of large stretches of the West Bank.

Lieberman dismissed this as election-time sloganeering. "Campaign slogans before elections and the political and diplomatic reality after them are usually two very different things," he said.

Political commentators noted that the dual-leadership of Likud-Beitenu, the joint list currently leading the polls, clarified the issue to distinguish it from Bennett's party, to which some voters have migrated, assuming Netanyahu would be forming the next government anyway.


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