Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today addressed a joint session of Congress and proclaimed that his government is willing to make “painful compromises” for peace with the Palestinians, but he ruled out any proposal that sacrifices Israel’s security needs or its identity as a Jewish state. In a lengthy speech that was interrupted 29 times by standing ovations and once by an incoherent protester, Netanyahu said that “Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967” and that any agreement would have to take into consideration the “vast demographic changes” that have taken place since 1967.
Mr. Netanyahu promised that Israel would be “very generous” about the size of a future Palestinian state, but that “Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel.” He said “our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state; it’s always been about the existence of the Jewish state.” He called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to do what he has done: “I stood before my people and I said ‘I will accept a Palestinian state.’ It’s time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say, ‘I will accept a Jewish state.’ Those six words will change history.”
Netanyahu said Israel would not negotiate with terrorists and urged President Abbas to break off a recent power-sharing deal with the Islamist extremist Hamas movement, which remains implacably committed to Israel’s destruction. He said “We must take calls for our destruction seriously” after the experience of the Holocaust and promised “When we say never again, we mean never again.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu also warned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and said Iran was working on missiles capable of reaching Washington, D.C.
Netanyahu’s speech was in large part a response to President Obama’s speech last week, in which he called for a peace agreement based on a return to the 1967 borders altered by “mutually agreed swaps” of territory. Because the President called for Israel to make territorial concessions before an agreement was reached on Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, many of Israel’s supporters regard Obama’s peace proposal as a formula for war rather than genuine peace.
Netanyahu’s speech also comes at a time when Palestinian leaders, who have refused to negotiate with Israel until it halts settlement activity, are considering an end run around Israel to obtain backing for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.
The Obama Administration and Netanyahu’s government, which have clashed repeatedly on how to revive peace negotiations, must work closely together in the future if any progress is to be made on Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Netanyahu’s speech signaled that Israel remains willing to work with the United States to advance peace negotiations, but it would not sacrifice its security interests or claim on Jerusalem to do so. The Israeli prime minister found a much more receptive audience for this message in Congress than he did at the White House. It did not go unnoticed that he also received more standing ovations from Congress than the President did during the last State of the Union address.