Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rounded out a tumultuous visit to Washington with a speech to a largely sympathetic Congress Tuesday, compared to the tense relations on display with President Obama last week.
During the address, Netanyahu reaffirmed the close ties between the U.S. and Israel and once again rejected any suggestion of redrawing Israel’s borders with a future Palestinian state along 1967 lines.
If the Palestinian Authority is prepared to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Netanyahu said he is willing to make a “far-reaching” compromise including “generous” land swaps with the understanding that Israel would not return to the boundaries established in 1967 and any negotiated peace settlement would include lands currently settled.
“This compromise must reflect the dramatic demographic changes that have occurred since 1967,” Netanyahu said. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis now live beyond those borders in illegal settlements.
Palestinian refugees and their descendents also would not be able to return to Israeli-occupied land, he asserted.
“I am willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historic peace,” he said.
Netanyahu pointed to recent economic growth in the West Bank as evidence that in peace with Israel, a future Palestinian state could prosper.
“The Palestinians have begun to build a better life for themselves,” he said. “…All this is happening without peace, but imagine what could happen with peace.”
But before any such peace could happen, Netanyahu said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas must abandon the recent unity deal between Fatah and Hamas that was brokered by Egypt.
“Hamas is not a partner for peace — Hamas remains committed to Israel’s destruction and terrorism,” he said. “Israel is prepared to sit down today and negotiate peace with the Palestinian Authority…but not with the Palestinian version of al Qaeda”
Netanyahu also warned of the grave dangers of allowing Iran to become a nuclear power — specifically that it could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East make the “nightmare of nuclear terrorism a clear and present danger throughout the world.”
“Time is running out; the hinge of history may soon turn,” he said. “For the greatest danger of all may soon be upon us a militant Islamic regime armed with nuclear weapons.”
The speech also sought to emphasize areas of shared interest between the U.S. and Israeli as Netanyahu’s visit to Washington came to a close — an apparent attempt to ease the testy relations that began with the White House after he took exception to a line in President Obama’s speech last week which called for jump-starting peace negotiations “based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed upon swaps” of territory.
He opened his speech on a personal note with Vice President Joe Biden.
“Do you remember the time that we were the new kids in town?” he asked Biden, who was seated behind him alongside Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). Biden said indeed he did, laughed and crossed himself.
When mentioning the cause of fighting terrorism, Netanyahu gave Obama high praise: “Congratulations, America. Congratulations, Mr. President. You got bin Laden. Good riddance!”
It was Netanyahu’s second appearance before Congress and he entered the House chamber, flanked by his staunchest supporters, to overwhelming applause. Members responded to nearly every paragraph with applause or a standing ovation — interrupted briefly by a heckler — who was quickly escorted out.
Netanyahu reacted calmly to the protester, calling her an example of democratic freedom of expression.
After the speech, bipartisan leaders on Capitol Hill stood alongside Netanyahu to thank him and reiterate their strong support.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said the U.S. has no stronger ally than Israel who “we stand shoulder to shoulder with” in attempts to achieve a “safe and secure” Israeli state. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told Netanyahu there shouldn’t be “a single doubt in your mind about the steadfast bipartisan and enthusiastic support of the United States.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) added: “I think it’s clear that both sides of the Capitol believe you advance the cause of peace.”
Netanyahu thanked the leaders and said he was gratified by the many standing ovations he received and the strong show of support on Capitol Hill.
“I’ve know these friends of Israel a long time,” he said of his allies in Congress. “They are true, steadfast friends….I got that impression by the hall where we just came from. I’m glad to see these anchors of the Israeli alliance…it’s heartwarming. We have a different feeling about the world when we have this solid American support from all parts of the American people.”
He also called the chance to address Congress “an opportunity to close the circle and come back to a place where I deeply appreciate.”
Despite the kind words from Congressional leaders, support for Israel is hardly monolithic among the Democratic party and Netanyahu’s visit to the United States exposed deepening fissures.
During a meeting between Netanyahu and Jewish Democratic and Republican groups Monday sniping broke out with Republicans attacking Democrats, who have strayed from the staunch pro-Israel line, in an unusually frank exchange before a foreign leader, Politico reported.
“The [Republican Jewish Coalition] and [National Jewish Democratic Council] argued between them,” Israeli Embassy spokesman Jonathan Peled said. “The Prime Minister stressed bipartisanship … and the importance of keeping Israel a bipartisan issue, as has always been the case.’
Netanyahu’s address to Congress came after a rocky back-and-forth between Netanyahu and the White House over Obama’s comments about the 1967 border lines. Obama stressed the need for additional “mutually agreed upon” land swaps, but that didn’t prevent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from angrily denouncing any return to the 1967 boundaries while sitting alongside Obama in the Oval Office on Friday.
The President on Sunday, while sticking to his guns, appeared to mollify some of Netanyahu’s concerns in a speech to 10,000 attendees of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee, where he insisted he is a “real friend” of Israel and agreed that Israel could not go back to the 1967 borders as they were without “mutually agreed” upon land swamps.