Netanyahu says Israel ready for 'far-reaching compromises' for peace

Israeli PM tells joint session of the US congress that orders must be negotiated and 'Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967'.

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WASHINGTON // Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, yesterday told a joint session of the US congress that while Israel was ready to make "far-reaching compromises" for peace, it is not prepared to accept a territorial settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on the 1967 lines.

"The precise lineation of those borders must be negotiated. But Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967," Mr Netanyahu said as he outlined his vision for peace with the Palestinians to a receptive crowd of American legislators.

Blaming the absence of a peace agreement squarely on the Palestinians, Mr Netanyahu urged members of Congress to "forcefully" oppose the Palestinian drive at the UN for a declaration of statehood in September. He also urged Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to "tear up" the unity agreement with Hamas, which he characterised as the "Palestinian version of al Qa'eda".

"I said I would accept a Palestinian state. Palestinians must accept a Jewish state," Mr Netanyahu said to long applause and one of 25 standing ovations.

The demand for Palestinians to accept Israel as a "Jewish state" is a relatively new one, and one Palestinians have so far rejected because of the potential ramifications for Palestinian refugees, as well as for the 20 per cent of Israel's population that is non-Jewish.

And Palestinians have already said Mr Netanyahu's speech left them no choice but to pursue independence through the UN.

"After the Netanyahu speech, the Palestinians have only one choice -- to go to the UN in September, to the General Assembly," negotiator Mohammed Shtayeh told AFP, referring to plans to seek UN recognition in September of Palestinian statehood.

Mr Netanyahu did not bring anything new to the table in his speech. Rather, he essentially brought "three no's" that his government has often repeated: no right of return of Palestinian refugees and their descendents to the homes and lands they fled or were forced to flee in 1948; no division of Jerusalem; no return to the pre-June 1967 armistice lines.

Mr Netanyahu was careful to frame this demand in language used by Barack Obama, the US president, who had twice over the past week called for a territorial settlement to be based on the 1967 lines, sparking a diplomatic row with the visiting Israeli delegation.

But Mr Netanyahu also rejected other aspects of Mr Obama's vision for a settlement. There could be no immediate or even short-term withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Jordan Valley, he said, due to Israel's "unique" security needs, and thus no Palestinian border with Jordan as Mr Obama envisaged in his speech last Thursday.

Moreover, while Mr Netanyahu said some settlements might be abandoned by Israel as part of its "far-reaching" compromises, he also said the "majority of the 650,000 Israelis" living in settlements in occupied territory, as well as other "places of critical strategic and national importance" would be incorporated into the final borders of Israel.

Nevertheless, he insisted that Israel would be "generous" with the size of any Palestinian state and said if the Palestinians accepted his vision of a final agreement -- which rejected every fundamental Palestinian demand regarding a two-state solution -- Israel would be the "first country" to vote for Palestinian statehood at the UN.

Mr Netanyahu spoke for 45 minutes yesterday to many of the same people he had addressed Monday at a banquet in Washington arranged by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Aipac, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group. More than 250 members of the US Congress, or more than two-thirds of all US representatives, had turned out for that dinner.

US legislators were due to host thousands of Aipac activists on Tuesday, who were to descend on the Hill to lobby members on a number of issues."

Top of their agenda was US military aid to Israel, where Aipac activists urged members of Congress to support US$3.075 billion (Dh11.29) in aid to Israel for 2012.

Israel is by far the largest recipient of American foreign aid, whether military aid, direct foreign aid or in the form of loan guarantees. According to Alison Weir, president of the Council for the National Interest Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, the US gives more aid to Israel than to the entire sub-Saharan region of Africa.

But Aipac activists also lobbied members to pass more stringent sanctions on Iran, as well as support a number of resolutions currently making their way through the House on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

One of these, House Resolution 268, calls on the Obama administration to lead an international effort to oppose a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood at the UN, and threatens the Palestinian Authority with a suspension of US aid if it includes "unreformed" Hamas members in its government.

The bill, which has been referred to the House Committee of Foreign Affairs, has bi-partisan support and was submitted by Eric Cantor, a Republican, and Steny Hoyer, a Democrat. Both are among the more popular members of Congress judged by the reception their names received when announced at the Aipac banquet Monday night.

Both are also able to command sizeable donations from the pro-Israel lobby in America. According to the Open Secrets website, part of the Center for Responsive Politics, a watch-dog that tracks money in US politics, Mr Cantor is the second largest recipient of donations from the pro-Israel community, while Mr Hoyer is the eighth.