Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told thousands of U.S. supporters he is prepared to make peace with the Palestinians if they recognize Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people.
Addressing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by name today from the podium of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual Washington conference, Netanyahu said he expects peace to create “open and thriving relations” with the Arab world. The speech came a day after President Barack Obama pressed him to compromise with the Palestinians.
“I am prepared to make a historic peace with our Palestinian neighbors,” Netanyahu said, calling on Abbas to recognize the Jewish state. “No excuses, no delays; it’s time.”
Netanyahu is in Washington as a deadline looms on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s nine-month Middle East peace campaign. Kerry is pressing Abbas and Netanyahu to accept by April 29 a structure that would guide further negotiations, a message reinforced by Obama when he met with the Israeli leader yesterday at the White House.
Obama, 52, who visited Netanyahu and Abbas on a Middle East tour a year ago, is inserting himself more directly into the peace talks as Kerry hits resistance from both sides. Abbas has been invited for his own White House meeting on March 17. A week later, Obama is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia, which has leverage over the Palestinians.
At yesterday’s meeting in the Oval Office, Netanyahu, 64, told Obama he will “stand strong against criticism, against pressure, stand strong to secure the future of the one and only Jewish state.”
“It’s my belief that ultimately it is still possible to create two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a state of Palestine in which people are living side by side in peace and security,” Obama said. “But it’s difficult and it requires compromise on all sides.”
Netanyahu responded that “Israel has been doing its part and I regret to say that the Palestinians have not.”
Kerry, who attended the White House meeting, later spoke at the Aipac conference, where he pledged U.S. military expertise and technology to protect Israel against any threats.
“We can deliver to Israel the security that Israel needs to make peace,” Kerry said.
If Kerry’s peace effort fails, it won’t be “the end of the world,” Palestinian official Nabil Shaath said yesterday in a speech at Tel Aviv University, broadcast on Israel Radio. Shaath said talks could continue with Kerry’s framework agreement if Israel agrees to free more Palestinian prisoners and freeze building in settlements.
Netanyahu told the 14,000 delegates at the Aipac conference that efforts to boycott Israeli products will fail because the “world wants Israeli technology,” pointing to the purchase of Israeli start-up companies by Google Inc., Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc.
He also applauded actress Scarlett Johansson for refusing to renounce her endorsement of Israeli company SodaStream International Ltd., which has a factory in the West Bank.
‘Seize the Moment’
Obama said in a Feb. 27 interview with Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg that time is running out to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. He urged Netanyahu to “seize the moment.”
If Netanyahu “does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach,” Obama said. “It’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible.”
For Israel, the more pressing concern is Iran’s nuclear program, which was the other topic dominating their discussion. The U.S. and five other world powers have a six-month agreement with Iran, to end in July, during which the Islamic Republic is supposed to freeze some of its nuclear program in exchange for relief from some sanctions.
Israel has expressed skepticism about the negotiations, and warned against the U.S. getting played by the Iranians. Netanyahu may have limited ability to enlist the U.S. Congress in keeping pressure on Iran.
Obama’s decision to engage in the peace process a year after he delegated the work to Kerry suggests both that Kerry got further than the White House initially predicted in restarting peace talks and that the top U.S. diplomat has run into enough obstacles that his April deadline may be in trouble.
Before the policy conference at Aipac, the biggest pro-Israel lobbying group, Senate Republicans on Feb. 26 announced a new effort to try to force votes on new sanctions legislation by attaching language to popular legislation for veterans’ benefits. While Aipac earlier called for new sanctions, it has backed away from that position.