Speaking to a friendly and enthusiastic congressional audience, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday gave his vision of the Middle East, based on a strong Israel irrevocably linked to the United States and willing to make some, but not all, sacrifices for peace with the Palestinians.
"Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel. We stand together to defend democracy," Netanyahu said, in a key theme he repeated in different forms in his 45-minute speech.
"Israel is not what is wrong about the Mideast," Netanyahu told a joint meeting of the two houses of Congress. "Israel is what is right about the Mideast."
The prime minister was making his second speech to Congress, and his remarks were frequently interrupted by standing ovations from the U.S. lawmakers. He stressed the need to support the pro-democracy movements that have swept through the region and called for efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions which he said was a direct threat to Israel.
Netanyahu also outlined his hard-line vision of a two-state solution, one Jewish, the other Palestinian. It is the Palestinians, he insisted, who refuse to accept a Jewish state while Israel is willing to accept the Palestinians. He said he was willing to give up some things to win a peace but defended the growth of Israeli settlements and the need for Israel to protect itself from groups, like Hamas, that question the country's right to exist.
Despite sharp disagreements with the Obama administration, Netanyahu played to a friendly congressional audience and presented himself as a conservative, tough-talking leader. He recounted war experiences, spoke forcefully and in a folksy manner as he reminded lawmakers of common ties that crossed U.S. political lines.
"I see a lot of old friends here," Netanyahu reminded the audience. There are "a lot of new friends here as well, Democrats and Republicans alike."
From the moment he entered the chamber, a process that took some 10 minutes as he shook numerous hands, Netanyahu adopted the persona of an old friend thanking a relative.
"I am deeply moved by this warm welcome," Netanyahu said.
"Mr. Vice President, do you remember the time we were the new kids in town?" Netanyahu joked of his past visits to Congress, stressing the longstanding relationship. Behind him Vice President Joe Biden crossed himself and smiled. Both laughed then shook hands.
But it was the message that Netanyahu pushed. It portrayed Israel and the United States moving in tandem to support real democracy while the allies supported each other against terrorist groups.
"Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel," Netanyahu insisted. "We stand together to defend democracy, we stand together to advance peace, we stand together to fight terrorism.
"Congratulations America and Mr. President," he said. "You got Bin Laden. Good riddance."
Netanyahu was interrupted once by a brief anti-Israel outburst from the gallery. But even that protest, by a woman from the group Code Pink, turned out to be an opportunity to make his case.
"You can't have these protests in the farcical parliaments of Tehran and Tripoli. This is real democracy," Netanyahu ad-libbed.
Last week, President Obama outlined his Mideast policy, calling on Israel and the Palestinians to resolve their longstanding enmity as part of the pro-democratic changes that are sweeping through the Mideast and North Africa. But in outlining his vision, which was similar to those of previous administrations, Obama touched off a storm of protest from pro-Israel lobbyists and lawmakers.
Obama called for negotiations based on the borders before the 1967 Six-Day War, coupled with mutually agreed-upon swaps of lands to accommodate the changing demographics of the area since the war. The president also suggested that issues such as the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees should be left until the border and national-security issues were resolved.
Netanyahu immediately threw cold water on Obama's comments, saying the 1967 borders were indefensible. Netanyahu lectured the president when the pair met reporters after a lengthy private session on Thursday, making it clear that Israel did not accept Obama's parameters for the next round of peace talks, when, and if, they come.
Netanyahu repeated that position Tuesday.
"I am willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historical peace. As the leader of Israel, it is my responsibility," he said. "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." he said, referring to the occupied West Bank.
Swapping land for security has been part of peace talks for decades, but the problem has always been how to draw the actual maps of what would become the new Palestinian state. "This compromise must reflect the dramatic demographic changes that have occurred since 1967," Netanyahu said, repeating Israel's position that it wanted to hold on to some of the settlements that have grown.
In his current swing through the United States, Netanyahu has also sought to build support to block a possible bid by Palestinians to seek international recognition of their state without talks. Palestinians are expected to ask the United Nations in the fall for such recognition.
Recently, Fatah and Hamas, which control different parts of the Palestinian areas, agreed to cooperate, creating yet another problem for peace talks. Israel and the United States see Hamas as a terrorist organization, and Netanyahu on Tuesday warned that Israel would always have the right to defend itself.