Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will try to take back center stage Thursday evening (afternoon EDT) when he speaks to the General Assembly at the United Nations. All ears will be glued to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech, which his aides have hyped as “dramatic."
U.S. President Barack Obama took the upper hand in the battle of rhetoric on Wednesday, offering Israel a carrot and a stick. He took pains to say that Israel is a Jewish state, a definition that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has refused to accept and one which Prime Minister Netanyahu has said is necessary for Israeli-PA negotiations to advance.
However, the president also referred to the Israeli presence in eastern Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria since the Six-Day War in 1967 as "the occupation." His comments in effect placed him four-square against both Israel and the PA. The Netanyahu government, supported by polls, does not accept surrendering all of the area that the PA demands.
No Israeli government ever used the term “occupation”, employed by foreign news agencies, the Arab world and many Western countries, until former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used the phrase to back the U.S. Roadmap proposal in 2003. “I think the idea that it is possible to continue keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation–yes it is occupation, you might not like the word, but what is happening is occupation–is bad for Israel, and bad for the Palestinians, and bad for the Israeli economy,” Sharon said at that time.
However, a later exchange of letters with then-President George W. Bush spelled out that large Jewish population centers in Judea and Samaria would remain under Israeli sovereignty in the event of the creation of a new Arab state in Judea and Samaria. The status of Jerusalem as the united capital of Israel never was even a matter of discussion.
President Obama’s use of the term was an escalation in rhetoric. Obama had stated in his “reaching out to the Muslim world” speech in Cairo last June that Jewish “settlements” were “illegitimate,” a term he repeated in the U.N. on Wednesday. He also chastised the PA for continuing incitement against Israel.
Although the Prime Minister diplomatically praised President Obama’s speech, it was met with catcalls by conservative Americans and Israeli leaders favoring a Jewish presence in all of Israel. Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton said that President Obama in effect has placed Israel “on the chopping block.”
Republican Congressman Jason Chafetz, a Mormon, stated that his calling on Israel to “end the occupation that began in 1967” is “offensive and wrong. He added, "I am outraged by the President's comments at the U.N.”
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor said he was glad that the trilateral meeting with Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas earlier this week was good but that he opposed Obama’s “disproportionate focus” on freezing construction for Jews in Judea and Samaria rather than on Iran’s nuclear development.
“If you look at the policy that this White House has followed, it certainly does not seem as if we are dealing with a true friend” of Israel, Cantor said.