WASHINGTON -- Israel is ready to make “painful compromises” to achieve peace with the Palestinians, but will also not budge on what it sees as key criteria for achieving a viable two-state solution. That was the message of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was received with applause and no less than two dozen standing ovations as he addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress on May 24.
The atmosphere provided a noticeable contrast to the tension that surrounded the Israeli leader’s meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on May 20, which came just a day after Obama publicly advocated a peace plan based largely on Israel returning to its pre-1967 borders.
Invited by Republican lawmakers to address Congress -- a rare privilege for a visiting leader -- Netanyahu said, "I'm willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historic peace. As the leader of Israel, it's my responsibility to lead my people to peace. Now, this is not easy for me. It's not easy because I recognize that in a genuine peace, we'll be required to give up parts of the ancestral Jewish homeland."
Palestinians, he said, should be “neither Israel's subjects nor its citizens” but should “enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable, and independent people.”
Netanyahu also pledged to be “generous” in agreeing the borders of a future Palestinian state.
Requirements For Peace
But in presenting his requirements for that vision to become reality, the head of Israel’s conservative Likud party said his country would not -- and could not -- abandon certain criteria for determining the final borders.
Most of those criteria involve territory captured by Israel in 1967’s Six-Day War, which saw the Jewish state counter Arab threats along the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian borders. The war resulted in Israel occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. Sinai has since been returned to Egypt.
Since the war, Israel has built settlements in some the territories won, a number of which have major Jewish populations. Continued construction has generated widespread international criticism, along with criticism by a segment of Israelis.
In September 2010, Palestinians walked away from the latest round of U.S.-brokered peace negotiations after Israel failed to extend a moratorium on construction in the West Bank.
Israel also insists that parts of the territories gained in the war provide essential buffer zones.
Before Congress, a steely Netanyahu repeated the same message he had for Obama: “The border will be different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.”
"If Israel simply walked out of the territories, the flow of weapons into a future Palestinian state would be unchecked, and missiles fired from it could reach virtually every home in Israel in less than a minute," he said.
"I want you to think about that, too. Imagine there's a siren going on now and we have less than 60 seconds to find shelter from an incoming rocket. Would you live that way? Do you think anybody can live that way? Well, we're not going to live that way either."
Nor, Netanyahu said, would Israel be willing to give up East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians ultimately hope to make their capital. The millions of Palestinian refugees, he added, would be able to return to an independent Palestine, but not to Israeli lands.
The Palestinians' Part
Netanyahu also called on Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas to abandon a unity agreement that his Fatah movement, which controls areas of the West Bank, signed with former rival Hamas, an Iranian-backed militant Islamist movement which de facto runs the Gaza Strip.
While Fatah has backed a negotiated peace with Israel, Hamas calls for Israel's destruction. It is regarded as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
"I say to President Abbas: Tear up your pact with Hamas. Sit down and negotiate," Netanyahu said. "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."
Earlier this year, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki announced that he would seek recognition for a Palestinian state on Israeli-occupied lands at the UN General Assembly in September -- a move opposed by both Israel and the United States, who say that an independent Palestine must result from negotiations.
Some analysts believe Obama is pushing Israel to agree a plan based on pre-1967 borders in order to head off the possible UN vote.
In his speech, Netanyahu also congratulated the United States on the raid that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan earlier this month and also took the opportunity to strike out at the growing threat posed by Iran.
Iranian leaders have previously called for the destruction of Israel, and Netanyahu said “time is running out” to prevent Tehran from producing nuclear weapons.
While Netanyahu’s words were warmly received by U.S. lawmakers, he was briefly interrupted by a heckler in the audience, who was later identified by antiwar group CODEPINK as a 28-year-old Jewish-American woman.
In response, Netanyahu told Congress, "You know, I take it as a badge of honor, and so should you, that in our free societies you can now protest. You can't have these protests in the farcical parliaments in Tehran or in Tripoli. This is real democracy."
Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders swiftly rejected the Israeli prime minister’s speech.
Following the address, Abbas's spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told France's AFP news agency that Netanyahu had added more "obstacles on the road toward a genuine, serious, lasting, and comprehensive peace."
Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official in the West Bank, called the speech "a declaration of war against the Palestinians."