Bibi’s balancing act

Laura Rozen

Prospects for new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks seemed more remote after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint meeting of Congress this morning.

Although the Israeli leader elicited thunderous applause and standing ovations from U.S. lawmakers at several points, the vision he laid out for an Israeli-Palestinian peace arrangement seems almost certain to be rejected by the Palestinians.

More notably, it lacked altogether a sense of urgency for restarting a peace process, which was a key takeaway of President Barack Obama's recent Middle East address.

"We seek a peace in which they [the Palestinians] will be neither Israel's subjects nor its citizens," Netanyahu said at a special congressional joint session presided over by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner. "They should enjoy a national life of dignity as free, independent people living in their own state."

"Our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state: It has always been about the existence of Israel as the Jewish state," the Israeli leader continued. If Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, Netanyahu pledged that he "will be prepared to make a far-reaching compromise."

But a compromise with lots of limits. Among the ones he spelled out, Netanyahu argued that the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state should be drawn so that the vast majority of the 650,000 Jewish settlers currently living on land seized by Israel after the Six Day war in 1967 remain inside Israel. He held Jerusalem should remain undivided and under Israeli control. (Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be their future capital.) He said that Palestinians would have to give up the right of return to Israel. Israel also requires a long-term military presence in the Jordan valley, Netanyahu said. And a future Palestinian state would have to be demilitarized.

Netanyahu called on Abbas to tear up his Fatah party's recent unity pact with the militant group Hamas, which Netanyahu characterized as the Palestinian version of al Qaeda.

Netanyahu did not indicate what percent of the West Bank he would be prepared to allocate for a future Palestinian state. Obama said last week that he thinks a fair starting point for negotiations would be the 1967 armistice lines with mutually agreed swaps.

Netanyahu did offer get well-wishes to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who reportedly suffered a heart attack while visiting his son yesterday in Texas.

The terms Netanyahu mentioned are ones he has more or less outlined before, most notably in a June 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University.

But analysts said it's unlikely the terms Netanyahu repeated today will give Obama much to work with as he tries to draw international support for jump-starting stalemated peace talks. While in Europe this week, Obama was expected to pitch British and French leaders to back a new peace effort, in an effort to avert their support for a Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations in September. Obama has vowed the United States will veto such a move at the UN Security Council, but does not have veto power at the UN General Assembly.

One thing is clear from the rousing reception he drew today: If Netanyahu only had to negotiate with Congress and the U.S. administration, rather than with Palestinians and the international community, he would surely get most all of his demands met. As the case is, of course, there are limits to the United States' ability to control events either on the ground in the rapidly changing Middle East, or at international diplomatic fora such as the UN.

(Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responds to the applause after he addressed a joint meeting of Congress on May 24, 2011. Vice President Joe Biden, left, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, right, listen.: Susan Walsh/AP Photo.)