Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told thousands of U.S. supporters he’s 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.” Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina called the overture a “waste of time” and said in a phone interview from Ramallah that Netanyahu was trying to sabotage the negotiations.
Netanyahu came to 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.
Netanyahu left after the speech to fly to California where he will meet executives at Apple Inc. tomorrow, sign a trade agreement with Governor Jerry Brown, and mingle with Hollywood celebrities.
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.
Abbas has said he can’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state in part because one-fifth of its population is Arab and he is concerned that would forfeit the claims of millions of refugees whose families fled or were expelled by Israel when it was established in 1948. Netanyahu today called on the Palestinian president to “abandon the fantasy of flooding Israel with refugees.”
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.”
While he focused today on Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state, Netanyahu has often raised other conditions for signing a peace agreement, including a requirement that the new state be demilitarized with an Israeli army presence on its eastern border with Jordan. He has also said he doesn’t want to move any of the 350,000 West Bank settlers from their homes, a position Abbas rejects.
“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.
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 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,” citing the purchase of Israeli startups by Google Inc., Apple 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.
For Israel, the more pressing concern is Iran’s nuclear program, which was the other topic dominating the discussions during Netanyahu’s visit. 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.
“Iran stands unabashedly on the wrong side of the moral divide,” Netanyahu said. “The greatest threat to our security is a nuclear-armed Iran.”
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 against Iran by attaching language to popular legislation for veterans’ benefits. While Aipac earlier called for new sanctions, it has backed away from that position. Obama also opposes passage of the sanctions while the agreement is in effect.