Netanyahu’s speech sets high bar for resumption of peace talks

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu invited Palestinians back to the bargaining table Tuesday with a speech before Congress that promised “painful” Israeli concessions in exchange for peace but also outlined a tough negotiating stance that was immediately rejected by key Palestinian officials.

One aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called Netanyahu’s proposals a “declaration of war against the Palestinians.”

Netanyahu’s vision for Middle East peace drew thunderous ovations from U.S. lawmakers who cheered his prescription for a two-state solution that he said would lead to a “viable, independent and prosperous” Palestinian state. The speech culminated a dramatic several days in U.S.-Israeli relations, including a major speech on the Middle East by President Obama on Thursday, a charged visit between the two leaders on Friday and numerous quieter contacts between officials of the two nations.

Netanyahu, one of a handful of foreign leaders to appear twice before joint meetings of Congress, laid out a vision for a peace agreement with the Palestinians that he said would include a “far-reaching compromise” and generous land concessions by Israel.

At the same time, he reiterated his inflexibility on several key points, vowing again that Israel would never accept a return to “indefensible” boundary lines that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In Obama’s speech Thursday, the president called for those boundaries to be the basis for future negotiations — a proposal that, by many accounts, angered Netanyahu and some other Israeli leaders.

In his remarks to Congress, Netanyahu appeared to signal room for compromise on a key point of contention: the future of Jerusalem. While the prime minister reiterated calls for the city to remain the country’s “undivided capital,” he added new rhetoric, saying that “with creativity and goodwill, a solution can be found.”

A person familiar with the planning for the speech said this line was intended to signal that Israel is interested in an approach that might satisfy Palestinian desires for a capital within Jerusalem’s current municipal boundaries by redrawing those lines and ceding certain Arab neighborhoods.

Netanyahu rejected any possibility of talks with a Palestinian government that includes the Islamist militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and recently reached a power-sharing deal with the mainstream Fatah administration in the West Bank.

Yet he declared that Israel must “find a way to forge a lasting peace with the Palestinians.”

“I recognize that in a genuine peace, we will be required to give up parts of the Jewish ancestral homeland,” he said.

Netanyahu blamed the Palestinians for the failure to end the long-running conflict so far, saying they have been “unwilling to accept a Palestinian state if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it.”

U.S. lawmakers and diplomats jammed the back walls and aisles of the crowded House chamber during the speech. Netanyahu was given a two-minute ovation when he entered the room and two dozen standing ovations during the 50-minute address.

One of the biggest applause lines came when he congratulated the Obama administration for the killing of Osama bin Laden three weeks ago. “Good riddance!” Netanyahu shouted, to raucous cheers.

Afterward, Democrats and Republicans praised the speech. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) called it “very powerful” and said Netanyahu had “opened some doors, I think, of potential avenues if the Palestinians want to take them up.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said: “I found almost nothing in it with which I disagree.”

In Israel, commentators said that the speech broke little new ground. Netanyahu reiterated points he made in an address to the Israeli parliament last week, in which he implied flexibility on territory while outlining positions that Palestinian leaders have rejected outright.

But in the West Bank, Palestinian officials cast Netanyahu’s speech as a setback to peace efforts. “He added more obstacles,” Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said. “It was a clear message to President Obama, refusing all his ideas, and a message to everybody that he is not ready for peace.”

Abu Rudeineh added: “These preconditions are not going to lead to any peace moves.”

Netanyahu’s speech came amid efforts by Israeli and White House officials to resolve differences over their approaches to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

After his Thursday speech, Obama sought to reassure Israelis of “ironclad” U.S. support in a speech on Sunday before AIPAC, a conservative pro-Israel lobbying group. But he insisted again that the 1967 boundaries should be the starting point for talks on a new Palestinian state, while acknowledging that the lines would need to be negotiated to accommodate Israeli settlements and security needs.

Netanyahu praised Obama in his Tuesday speech for his support for Israel, and he vowed that Israel would stand by the United States as an “unwavering ally” in a turbulent region undergoing rapid change.

He reserved some of his harshest language for Iran, which he characterized as the “foremost” force opposing Middle East peace. He asserted that the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “sponsors terror worldwide” and is pursuing nuclear weapons.

The Israeli leader’s address was interrupted briefly by a protester whose shouts were quickly drowned out by U.S. lawmakers. Netanyahu said he took the outburst “as a badge of honor,” adding: “You can’t have these protests in the farcical parliaments in Tehran or Tripoli. This is real democracy.”

Correspondent Joel Greenberg in Jerusalem and staff writers David Fahrenthold, Felicia Sonmez and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.

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