Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Photo by Nir Keidar
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited yesterday to address a joint session of Congress in late May. In his speech, the prime minister is expected to present his plans ahead of a Palestinian attempt to gain international recognition for a state at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

The speech is already being hailed as "Bar-Ilan II," a nod to the speech Netanyahu gave at the Israeli university in 2009 in which he pledged a commitment to the two-state solution.

Netanyahu spoke to a gathering of Likud members in Tel Aviv yesterday, offering a possible preview of his remarks to the American Congress.

"We will stand strong before efforts to dictate conditions that will leave us without security and without peace," Netanyahu said, hinting at the unilateral steps planned by the Palestinians in the UN.

Netanyahu said that John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, invited him to address Congress.

"I intend to talk about the Iranian threat, about the changes that are happening in our region, and the way we believe that only through them peace is possible," Netanyahu told party members, Likud ministers and MKs who attended the event.

"We passed two years during which we stood steadfast on the principles that guide the State of Israel in order to preserve its security and so that the peace settlements will result in a secure peace, not peace on paper, but a sustainable peace," Netanyahu said.

"I have determined a number of principles in order to ensure that there will be such a settlement, and the two most important are the recognition by the Palestinians of the State of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people, and the second, genuine security arrangements on the ground," the prime minister said.

Netanyahu also spoke of the need to increase the defense budget and said that he has held talks on the matter with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.

Looking to meet with Obama too

Netanyahu has not yet received an formal invitation because a special vote needs to be held on the matter in Congress. Netanyahu will likely address Congress on May 22, when he will be in the U.S. to participate in the conference of pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.

In announcing his intention to invite Netanyahu, Boehner said that "America and Israel are the closest of friends and allies, and we look forward to hearing the Prime Minister's views on how we can continue working together for peace, freedom, and stability."

Netanyahu plans to also try to secure a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama during his trip. The Israeli Prime Minister last visited the White House in September, ahead of the ceremony inaugurating another round of peace talks with the Palestinians, last September. The talks broke down less than a month later.

The invitation for Netanyahu to speak in Congress followed much lobbying by his advisers during meetings with congressmen, especially among Republicans.

Netanyahu adviser Ron Dermer, who has close ties with Republican congressmen, and Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, intensively pursued the matter.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Obama is expected to comment in the coming weeks on the wave of uprisings in the Middle East and the peace process, and present his government policy on these matters.

Clinton said the president would comment on U.S. policy on the Middle East and North Africa in the coming weeks, but did not elaborate.

She also said that the status quo between Israelis and Palestinians is not any more tenable than the regimes that collapsed during the past two months.

Although it is not yet clear when Obama will give his speech on the Middle East, it is likely that it will precede Netanyahu's speech to Congress and will aim to clarify the administration's expectations of the Israeli leader.

Sources close to Netanyahu say that they are certain Obama will not put forth an American peace plan. However, Israeli diplomats noted yesterday that Obama will still devote a significant amount of space to Israel, the Palestinians and human rights in the Middle East.

"Obama and his aides ideologically consider the Palestinian issue a matter of human rights and therefore place it high on their list of priorities," an Israeli diplomat said.