Benjamin Netanyahu at Congress - Reuters - 24.5.2011
Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a joint meeting of Congress in Washington, May 24, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented yesterday in a speech to both houses of Congress his diplomatic program and the compromises he would be willing to offer as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu used vague and noncommittal language throughout the speech, but noted that several settlements will be left outside of Israel's future borders and that creative solutions are needed to resolve the issue of Jerusalem. Netanyahu received a very warm welcome by the Congress members, who interrupted his speech with 29 standing ovations, and by guests in the public seats, including Israel Hayom proprietor Sheldon Adelson and president of the World Jewish Congress, Ron Lauder. The Israeli prime minister was only heckled once, by a demonstrator who raised a protest sign against the occupation.

Netanyahu weaved the interruption into his speech, noting that one would be stopped from protesting like that in Tripoli or Tehran, but not in Israel and the United States, where there is democracy. The congressmen drowned the heckles out with a standing ovation while the demonstrator was forcibly removed. She was injured in the process and remained hospitalized last night.

"I am willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historic peace. As the leader of Israel, it is my responsibility to lead my people to peace," Netanyahu said, before going on to defy the accepted notion that Israel was occupying the West Bank. "This is not easy for me. I recognize that in a genuine peace, we will be required to give up parts of the Jewish homeland. In Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. We are not the British in India. We are not the Belgians in the Congo. This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God, where David set out to confront Goliath, and where Isaiah saw a vision of eternal peace. No distortion of history can deny the 4,000-year-old bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land."

However, he said, this land needs to be partitioned. "The Palestinians share this small land with us. We seek a peace in which they will be neither Israel's subjects nor its citizens. They should enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people in their own state. They should enjoy a prosperous economy, where their creativity and initiative can flourish."

Netanyahu blamed the Palestinians for the failure of the peace process so far, saying that they refused offers by his predecessors. "They continue to educate their children to hate. They continue to name public squares after terrorists. And worst of all, they continue to perpetuate the fantasy that Israel will one day be flooded by the descendants of Palestinian refugees," Netanyahu said.

The prime minister said that Abbas "must do as I have done ... I stood before my people, and I told you it wasn't easy for me, and I said ... 'I will accept a Palestinian state.' It is time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say "I will accept a Jewish state."

More specifically, Netanyahu said that the borders of the future Palestinian state "must reflect the dramatic demographic changes that have occurred since 1967. The vast majority of the 650,000 Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines reside in neighborhoods and suburbs of Jerusalem and Greater Tel Aviv."

He said that "under any realistic peace agreement, these areas, as well as other places of critical strategic and national importance, will be incorporated into the final borders of Israel."

Netanyahu went on to hint, for the first time, that he would be willing to evacuate settlements as part of a final status agreement with the Palestinians. "In any peace agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements will end up beyond Israel's borders," the prime minister said. "The precise delineation of those borders must be negotiated. We will be very generous on the size of a future Palestinian state. But as President Obama said, the border will be different from the one that existed on June 4, 1967. Israel will not return to the indefensible lines of 1967."

On Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he knew this was a sensitive issue for Palestinians, but a solution can be found with creativity and good will - adding that Jerusalem will not be partitioned again and will remain the united capital of Israel. This, too, was met with an ovation, although Vice President Biden, sitting behind Netanyahu, did not clap.

Netanyahu also stressed that Israel must retain a long-term military presence along all the Jordan River, and that the issue of Palestinian refuges must be resolved outside Israel's borders.

He called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to cancel the reconciliation agreement with Hamas. "Tear up your pact with Hamas! Sit down and negotiate! Make peace with the Jewish state! And if you do, I promise you this: Israel will not be the last country to welcome a Palestinian state as a new member of the United Nations. It will be the first to do so."

After the speech, the leaders of Congress - Speaker of the House John Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid - all came out for joint press statements with Netanyahu, and complimented him for his speech. More junior congressmen also lavished praise on the Israeli premier. Dennis Cardoza (D-CA ), a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said that the speech was "electrifying." "I wholeheartedly agree with both the substance and the spirit of Mr. Netanyahu's comments in their entirety. I believe it is in the interest of the United States, the countries of the Middle East, and the world to follow this road map for a more peaceful future."

President Barack Obama's advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters in London, where the president is on a state visit, that "Prime Minister Netanyahu reaffirmed the strength of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. He laid out his deep concerns about Iran, which we certainly share, and again have taken additional action in the last couple of days around our sanctions effort, and again pointed to the importance of peace. The message he delivered to Congress I think is very similar to the discussions he had with the president and the speech he gave last night."

Netanyahu's speech won plaudits from centrist and right-wing Jewish organizations in the United States, with the Anti-Defamation League saying that "Prime Minister Netanyahu was well-deserving of the warm reception he received in Congress. Most importantly, he made clear that at the heart of the conflict, as it has been, is Palestinian refusal to accept the existence of a Jewish state." Left-wing organizations, by contrast, said they were sorely disappointed. Americans for Peace Now President and CEO Debra DeLee said that "Prime Minister Netanyahu was today granted a podium that few world leaders receive. He had the chance to demonstrate to the world that, contrary to many people's expectations, he grasps the urgency of the moment. Unfortunately for Israel, he did not rise to the occasion."