WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a cheering U.S. Congress on Tuesday he was willing to make “painful compromises” for peace with the Palestinians, but he offered little concrete to entice Palestinians back to the bargaining table.
By giving such a high-profile speech before overwhelmingly supportive U.S. lawmakers, Netanyahu was able to demonstrate to Israelis that he retains strong backing in the United States despite his frosty relations with President Barack Obama.
He also moved the needle on territorial compromise, for the first time explicitly saying in his address that Israel would have to give up some West Bank settlements.
But Palestinians immediately rejected his overall peace package, which for the most part was a recycling of previously stated positions that the Palestinians had turned down. One senior Palestinian official even dubbed Netanyahu’s peace blueprint a “declaration of war.”
Speaking before a sympathetic Congress that showered him with more than two dozen sustained standing ovations, Netanyahu said Israel wants and needs peace and would make “generous” territorial concessions. Under any final peace accord, he added, “some settlements will be beyond Israel’s borders.”
But undercutting his overture was his insistence that Israel hold onto major settlement blocs and all of contested Jerusalem, that his country maintain a long-term military presence on the eastern edge of the West Bank and that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas scuttle his power-sharing agreement with the violently anti-Israel Hamas militants.
He also restated Israel’s refusal to repatriate millions of Palestinians who lost homes in Israel during the fighting over the Jewish state’s 1948 creation.
Unlike the Americans, Palestinians had no accolades for Netanyahu.
In the West Bank, Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official, called the speech “a declaration of war against the Palestinians.”
“This is an escalation and unfortunately, it received a standing ovation,” he said, noting that Netanyahu had rejected Palestinian demands on central issues such as borders, competing claims to Jerusalem and the fate of refugees.
In Gaza, the Islamic militant Hamas fumed that “Netanyahu denied us all our rights.”
“We must work to adopt an Arab and Palestinian strategy based on the right of resistance,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, referring to armed attacks on Israeli targets.
In lieu of negotiations, Abbas is campaigning to obtain U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood when the General Assembly meets in September. Both Israel and the U.S. oppose this strategy, calling instead for the negotiated solution that has been the cornerstone of two decades of peace efforts.
Abbas is to meet with leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization and his Fatah movement on Wednesday to discuss their next move. The Palestinians have developed an alternate strategy to moribund negotiations, largely on hold since 2008, and have said they will seek U.N. recognition of their state in September.
Netanyahu came to the U.S. in a fighting mood, sparring – even before he landed – with Obama, who hours before had expressed support for drawing future borders on the basis of the boundaries Israel had before capturing east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967.
Netanyahu repeatedly challenged the president’s position, ignoring Obama’s assertion that the territorial markers could be adjusted through mutually agreed land swaps. The Palestinians accept that principle, which would allow Israel to retain major West Bank settlement blocs and help to assure its security.
In his speech before Congress, Netanyahu backed off from this dispute, acknowledging that the president had not called for a return to Israel’s prewar borders. Israeli officials said that was because Obama sharpened his position on this matter, but it is possible Netanyahu felt he could ease the assault because of the tremendous outpouring of support he received in Congress and, the night before, at a meeting of the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington.
That support in the U.S. has allowed Netanyahu in the past to fend off Obama’s demands that he do more to advance peacemaking by freezing settlement construction.
Obama has, in large part, staked his reputation in the Muslim world on finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But he has not been able to draw Israelis and Palestinians back to the bargaining table for sustained talks. The Palestinians are refusing to return as long as Israeli settlement construction continues on lands they want for a future state.
Netanyahu, early in his speech, congratulated the United States for killing al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, wishing him “good riddance.” He dismissed shouts from an anti-Israel protester as evidence that freedom of speech is alive and well in the United States and is respected there and in Israel.