- Israeli leader says he wants to renew talks with Palestinians
- He says Israel shares `progressive' values on women, gays
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, building on efforts to mend strained relations with U.S. President Barack Obama, sought to convince other Democrats that Israel still deserves bipartisan support and aspires to peace with the Palestinians.
The Israeli leader said Tuesday that he’s ready to enter talks about the creation of a Palestinian state provided he gets assurances that it would be demilitarized and that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Peace talks mediated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry collapsed in April 2014.
"Israelis ask a simple question, which I ask," Netanyahu said at the Center for American Progress, a Washington policy group aligned with Democrats. "If we were to set up a Palestinian state, how do we make sure that state does not become another Gaza?" Before any steps can be taken, he said, "you have to make sure the Palestinian state that is formed is not committed to Israel’s destruction."
Netanyahu spoke a day after meeting Obama at the White House for the first time in 13 months, part of a fence-mending trip after the Israeli leader waged a losing fight alongside Republicans to block the accord with Iran backed by Obama. The Center for American Progress has ties to Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Saying that Israel shares the group’s “progressive” values, Netanyahu said it places great value on women’s rights, including their role in its military, and backs gay rights.
Netanyahu’s appearance was arranged to balance his speech the night before at a black-tie dinner for the conservative American Enterprise Institute, where he was largely hailed for locking horns with Obama over Iran.
Israelis are wary of concessions to the Palestinians, given their experience pulling out of southern Lebanon in 2000 and in 2005 from the Gaza Strip, which was taken over by the militant Islamist group Hamas. Israel came under attack from both areas.
Netanyahu, 65, praised Obama for his support of Israel and the "very good" visit that he had at the White House. "It’s vital," he said, "that Israel remain an issue of bipartisan consensus."
David Makovsky, a former member of the U.S. negotiating team and head of the Middle East project at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, said Israeli and U.S. officials were on their best behavior. “Both sides had an interest that there be no fireworks,” he said.
Asked about the war in Syria, Netanyahu said that if Iran tries to establish a front on the Golan Heights, or if Hezbollah attempts to transfer weapons to Lebanon, "we’ll take forceful action."
He said he is pessimistic about the chances for Syria to remain whole. "I can’t tell you if you can put Humpty Dumpty back together again," he said. "I doubt it." What Israel wants to see is a solution "that restores some calm, stops the carnage."
Later, Netanyahu met with Senate leaders in a session that was an “important step" toward rebuilding relations with Democrats, said Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Senate Democrat. “It needs to be an ongoing effort for the prime minister to reach out to members, particularly on the Democratic side,” Durbin told reporters.
The prime minister and Obama said during their meeting that they have started talks on increasing the military assistance that already makes Israel the biggest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, with an annual allocation of $3.1 billion.
“The U.S. has given indispensable help to Israel,” Netanyahu said Tuesday in a speech to Jewish leaders. “But Israel is also returning that assistance on a daily basis -- in intelligence and many other things.”