WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Israel is prepared to make “painful compromises” for peace with the Palestinians, including the handover of land they seek for a state, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress on Tuesday.
Addressing a joint meeting of Congress, a bastion of support for Israel, after a testy exchange last week with President Barack Obama over the contours of a future Palestine, Netanyahu reiterated his terms for peace.
They included Palestinian recognition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and the scrapping of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ unity accord with the Islamist movement Hamas.
“Tear up your pact with Hamas. Sit down and negotiate. Make peace with the Jewish state,” he said.
“I am willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historical peace. As the leader of Israel, it is my responsibility,” the right-wing leader added, echoing a pledge he made in a speech to Israel’s parliament on May 15.
“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,” he said, referring to the occupied West Bank.
Commenting on Netanyahu’s Washington address, a spokesman for Abbas said the Israeli leader’s vision for ending conflict with Palestinians put “more obstacles” in front of the Middle East peace process.
“What came in Netanyahu’s speech will not lead to peace,” said the spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdainah, in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Settler leaders and members of Netanyahu’s own Likud party voiced opposition last week to his hints of territorial compromise. But with Israeli-Palestinian peace talks currently frozen and no breakthrough in sight, his governing coalition did not appear to be in any jeopardy.
Though he implied in Congress that Israel would cede some Jewish settlements in the West Bank, he said others would be annexed in any future peace agreement.
“This compromise must reflect the dramatic demographic changes that have occurred since 1967,” he said, referring to Israel’s construction of hundreds of settlements on land Palestinians want for a state.
Repeating a message he has delivered consistently during his five-day visit to Washington, Netanyahu said “Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967,” narrow lines that existed before the West Bank was captured in a war 44 years ago.
Obama drew Israeli anger when he said on Thursday a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip should largely be drawn along the pre-1967 frontiers.
A frosty meeting with Netanyahu followed at the White House on Friday when the Israeli leader, with Obama sitting at his side, rejected those borders.
On Sunday, Obama seemed to ease Israeli anger somewhat when he made clear Israel would likely be able to negotiate keeping some settlements as part of a land swap in any final deal with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu was greeted warmly by congressional leaders and received frequent standing ovations. He was heckled once from the gallery by a woman who shouted “No more occupation — end Israeli war crimes!”
Legislators stood to applaud Netanyahu, to drown out further disruptions, and police hustled the woman out.
Netanyahu repeated his long-standing demand that a future Palestine must be demilitarized and accept a long-term Israeli military presence along its eastern border on the Jordan River.
He also called on Palestinians to see their future “homeland,” rather than Israel, as the place to resolve the issue of Palestinian refugees.
“It’s time for (Palestinian) President Abbas to stand before his people and say, ‘I will accept a Jewish state’,” Netanyahu said to applause.
“Those six words will change history. They will make it clear to the Palestinians that this conflict will come to an end,” he said. “And those six words will convince the people of Israel that they have a true partner for peace.”
Netanyahu again voiced his opposition to a planned bid by the Palestinians to seek U.N. recognition of statehood in September in the absence of peace talks.
“Peace cannot be imposed. It must be negotiated,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and John McGowan)
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