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Netanyahu Heads Home as Congress Applause Follows Obama Clash

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, addresses a joint meeting of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrapped up a five-day U.S. visit that began with a White House clash with President Barack Obama over Palestinian peacemaking and ended with 29 standing ovations from Congress.

In his address to a joint meeting of the House and the Senate yesterday, Netanyahu held firm to his rejection of Obama’s proposal to use boundaries from before the 1967 Six-Day War combined with land swaps as a starting point for peace negotiations. Palestinian leaders in turn said they were not impressed with Netanyahu’s declaration that he would make “painful” compromises to resolve the conflict.

“He proved tonight we don’t have a partner,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said in a telephone interview. “Netanyahu has to say the magic word, and that is ‘I accept the 1967 borders.’”

While Netanyahu and Obama sought to minimize their differences following a May 20 Oval Office confrontation over future borders of a Palestinian state, the prime minister’s trip produced no new concrete peace initiatives. Members of Congress demonstrated with frequent applause that they oppose pressuring Israel to accept Obama’s strategy for renewing peace talks.

In his 46-minute speech, Netanyahu said Palestinians need to accept Israel as a Jewish state. He said he recognizes that Israel will have to give up parts of its ancestral homeland in exchange for peace, suggesting that some West Bank settlers may end up in a future state of Palestine.

‘Negotiated’ Borders

“In any peace agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders,” Netanyahu, 61, said. “The precise delineation of those borders must be negotiated.”

“We will be very generous on the size of a future Palestinian state,” he said. “But as President Obama said, the border will be different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. Israel will not return to the indefensible lines of 1967.”

Netanyahu said Israel is prepared to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, but it won’t negotiate with Hamas, which he called the “Palestinian version of al-Qaeda.” The Islamic militant group, which won a majority in the Palestinian parliament in 2006, rules the Gaza Strip and signed a reconciliation agreement earlier this month with the Fatah party headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“Tear up your pact with Hamas,” he urged Abbas. “Make peace with the Jewish state.”

Erakat said the Israeli prime minister offered “the same old speeches, the same words and the same excuses.”

‘Unworkable’ Proposals

Arab League Secretary-General Amre Moussa, who is running for president of Egypt in elections to be held later this year, said on his Twitter account that Netanyahu’s proposals “are unworkable and do not allow for peace.”

“When Netanyahu says Jerusalem will remain Israeli and will never be given to the Palestinians I say that there will never be peace,” he said.

Netanyahu, who was heckled by one demonstrator protesting his policies in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, took credit for increasing Palestinian economic growth by removing hundreds of barriers and military roadblocks to the free flow of goods and people.

“The results have been nothing short of remarkable,” he said. “The Palestinian economy is booming; it’s growing by more than 10 percent a year, and Palestinian cities look very different today than what they looked just a few years ago. They have shopping malls, movie theaters, restaurants, banks.”

Aid Still Needed

In New York, a United Nations official yesterday said Israel’s restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank still leave thousands needing international aid.

“Freedom of movement is imperative for Palestinians to develop their economy and reduce their dependence on humanitarian assistance,” UN emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos told reporters following a four-day visit to the West Bank and Israel.

Netanyahu said in his speech to Congress that it is “absolutely vital” that a Palestinian state be demilitarized and that Israel maintain a military presence along the Jordan River.

He also called on the U.S. to continue sending the “unequivocal message” that Iran must be stopped from developing nuclear weapons. “Militant Islam could exact an horrific price from all of us before its eventual demise,” he said.

“The ground is still shifting” in the Middle East, said Netanyahu, who is scheduled to return home today. “This historic moment holds the promise of a new dawn of freedom and opportunity.”

‘No Better Friend’

“Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel,” he said. “We stand together to defend democracy; we stand together to advance peace; we stand together to fight terrorism.”

He also congratulated Obama on the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

“Congratulations, America, congratulations, Mr. President. You got bin Laden. Good riddance,” the prime minister said.

The Israeli leader spoke a day after Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad underwent cardiac catheterization in Austin, Texas, after what spokesman Jamal Zakout said was a heart attack. In his speech to Congress, he wished Fayyad a speedy recovery.

‘Ironclad’ Security Commitment

Speaking on May 22 to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the country’s largest pro-Israel lobby, Obama offered assurances of an “ironclad” U.S. commitment to Israel’s security. He said using the 1967 lines as a starting point doesn’t mean the borders will be the same as those that existed before the war, saying they could be adjusted with agreed-upon territorial exchanges.

“This basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. administrations,” Obama said. “It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.”

Obama’s proposal, initially made in a speech at the State Department on May 19, marked the first time a U.S. president has explicitly backed using the 1967 boundaries as the starting point for talks that would have Israel cede control of some land to Palestinians in return for peace and security. He also called for Palestinian territory to be demilitarized. Obama proposed no specific steps to restart peace talks.

The 1967 lines define the boundaries of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, which were all captured in the war that year from Jordan, Egypt and Syria.

In the 44 years since, Israel has built settlements in all the territories, whose population has grown to more than 500,000 and obscured many of the boundaries between what was sovereign Israel before and after the June 1967 war. The Arab population of the West Bank is about 2.5 million.

Israel removed all its settlements from Gaza in 2005. The borders there are demarcated by a security fence and the Mediterranean Sea.

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