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In speech to Congress, Israel's Netanyahu offers few concessions

The Israeli leader says he's ready to make 'painful compromises,' but he sets requirements for peace talks that vary little from previous views.

May 25, 2011|By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledges applause as he is greeted before addressing a joint session of Congress in Washington.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledges applause as he… (Jason Reed, Reuters )

Reporting from Washington and Jerusalem — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a joint session of Congress he was prepared to make "painful compromises" for peace but he offered few of the concessions that President Obama has sought as a way to revive moribund Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Ending a tumultuous five-day visit to Washington, Netanyahu said Tuesday he was willing to give up "parts of the ancestral Jewish homeland" in negotiations to create a separate Palestinian state. But he set requirements that varied only slightly from his previous views, and he did not address many specific Palestinian demands.

Speaking to loud applause from U.S. lawmakers, Netanyahu promised to support a Palestinian state that is "independent and viable" and acknowledged that "some [Jewish] settlements will end up outside Israel's borders" in any final deal.

But he said that Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel, that the families of Palestinian refugees cannot reclaim their homes in Israel, and that Israel will need to deploy military forces along the eastern border of the proposed new state for the "long term."

Netanyahu also restated that Israel cannot move its borders back to those used before the 1967 war, arguing that Israel would be only nine miles wide at its narrowest point and thus would be vulnerable to invasion. On Thursday, Obama proposed that the 1967 boundaries become a baseline for territorial negotiations, an idea that Netanyahu quickly rejected. Obama later reiterated his position, emphasizing that the pre-1967 baseline should be subject to land swaps.

The speech signaled that Netanyahu places a high priority on retaining support of his right-wing partners in Israel, who oppose offering many concessions. They believe that with political upheaval rocking the Mideast, and with the Palestinian Authority incorporating the militant group Hamas into its leadership, peace talks should stay dormant for now.

But Netanyahu's speech also suggests that Israel and the Obama administration face an uphill struggle to convince allies in Europe and elsewhere that they should embrace the peace process and not Palestinian efforts to win recognition for an independent state at the United Nations this fall, analysts said.

"He made peace with Congress, but he's not going to make peace with Palestinians," said Yossi Alpher, who worked as a peace talks advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. "There's not nearly enough here. There was nothing new."

Palestinians dismissed Netanyahu's speech as little more than a restatement of familiar Israeli demands.

Nabil abu Rudaineh, a Palestinian spokesman, said that Netanyahu "put more obstacles in the way of the peace process. Peace should be based on international resolutions and negotiations, and not by putting preconditions and more obstacles in the way of the peace process."

After appearing to lecture Obama in a White House meeting last week, Netanyahu struck a more gracious tone Tuesday, thanking the president for supporting Israeli security. Lawmakers rose repeatedly to applaud the Israeli leader, sending an implicit message that the Obama administration should not push Israel too far.

Even one of Obama's closest allies appeared to criticize the president. On Monday night, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) chided the White House for suggesting that Israel should return to the pre-1967 borders.

"No one should set premature parameters about borders, about building, or about anything else," Reid said in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group known as AIPAC, which Obama had addressed a day earlier.

Others said Netanyahu may have gone too far. Continuing "to spar with the president risks deeper tension and mistrust with the Obama administration, which ultimately undermines Israel's interests," said Haim Malka, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Netanyahu appeared to show movement on a few key points, analysts said.

He now says Israel will need a "long-term" military presence in the Jordan Valley, on the eastern edge of the West Bank, rather than a permanent presence, said Zvika Krieger of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace in Washington.

Netanyahu also acknowledged for the first time last week that Israel would need to give up some smaller Jewish settlements in the West Bank, though it will keep larger ones, in any final peace deal.

Krieger described Netanyahu's comments as "Israel's starting offer for negotiations."

Netanyahu portrayed Israel as the sole beacon of democracy in the region, saying that of the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, "less than one half of one percent are truly free — and they're all citizens of Israel."

paul.richter@latimes.com

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Richter reported from Washington and Sanders from Jerusalem. Staff writer Christi Parsons in London contributed to this report.

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