Congress gives Netanyahu enthusiastic support down the line

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Congress.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Congress. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

WASHINGTON — Addressing an enthusiastic joint session of Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that he was willing to make "painful compromises" to reach a comprehensive peace with Palestinian Arabs, but only if they agreed to live with a Jewish state whose territory included the suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

In a 45-minute speech punctuated by 29 standing ovations — an unusually high number for a foreign leader before Congress — Netanyahu repeated his assertion that "Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967," which President Barack Obama said in a major speech last week should be the starting point of peace negotiations.

The spirit of Obama's remarks reflected the positions of former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. But Obama's overt call for using the 1967 lines — adjusted by mutually agreed land swaps — was controversial, especially when Netanyahu publicly upbraided Obama in the White House Oval Office the next day. On Tuesday, Netanyahu repeated his stand, but this time in front of a warm, appreciative bipartisan audience of American lawmakers.

After the speech, congressional leaders of both parties made it clear that they were firmly allied with Israel's prime minister.

"Today we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel and once again renew our historic partnership. The work of achieving a safe and secure Israel has never been easy, but the cause is right," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as he stood outside his office flanked by other congressional leaders and Netanyahu.

During his address, Netanyahu spelled out Israel's terms and ruled out several aspects of Palestinian aspirations.

"We'll be generous about the size of the future Palestinian state," Netanyahu said. "But as President Obama said, the border will be different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967."

The prime minister stated flatly that suburban Jerusalem and Tel Aviv would remain part of a Jewish state, emphasizing that the vast majority of the 650,000 Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines reside in those neighborhoods.

He reaffirmed that Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel.

"And under any realistic peace agreement, these areas, as well as other places of critical strategic and national importance, will be incorporated into the final borders of Israel," Netanyahu said.

Palestinians contest those points.

Netanyahu did, however, signal a willingness to give up some Israeli settlements, probably in the West Bank, saying that "in any agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements will end up beyond Israel's borders.

"Now this is not easy for me. It's not easy, because I recognize that in a genuine peace we will be required to give up parts of the ancestral Jewish homeland."

But Netanyahu remained firm in his opposition to the return of millions of Palestinian refugees, their families and descendants to land they once lived on before it became Israel in 1948 — another key goal of Palestinian negotiators in the past.

"Palestinians from around the world should have a right to immigrate, if they so choose, to a Palestinian state," he said. " ... It means that the Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved outside the borders of Israel."

That line was one of many that brought members of the House of Representatives and the Senate out of their seats clapping. From the moment he walked into the House chamber — and long afterward — Netanyahu was showered with adoration and support, a stark contrast to his seemingly cool White House meeting with Obama last week.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., seemed to set the congressional tone Monday night when he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, "I will make sure the United States stands with Israel every time."

He appeared to rebuke Obama implicitly, saying, "Those negotiations will not happen — and their terms will not be set — through speeches, or in the streets, or in the media. No one should set premature parameters about borders, about building or about anything else."

Tuesday, the lawmakers' pro-Israeli attitude was evident from the moment Netanyahu walked into the House chamber and promptly drew a 30-second standing ovation. They stood again repeatedly as he spoke his more controversial lines.

After the speech, Netanyahu called the welcome "heartwarming," adding, "This is a great day for us."

The day's only sour note came about 10 minutes into the address, when Rae Abileah, 28, from the peace group CODEPINK, stood up in the balcony to Netanyahu's left and shouted, "Stop Israeli war crimes." She issued a statement that said, "What is really indefensible is the occupation of land, the starvation of Gaza, the jailing of dissenters and the lack of equal rights in the alleged Israeli democracy. As a Jew and an American taxpayer, I can't be silent when these crimes are being committed in my name and with my tax money."

She was arrested and charged with disrupting Congress. Netanyahu used the incident to praise U.S. openness by saying, "This is real democracy."


Obama slams Bahrain's crackdown

Obama's stand on Israel wins no points in Arab world

Analysts: President Obama's Middle East speech won't influence the region

For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington

Related stories from McClatchy DC