WASHINGTON (AFP) – Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday was to outline his views on reviving the peace process before the US Congress after rejecting White House demands for a settlement based on 1967 borders.
In a speech before a powerful Israel lobbying group late Monday in Washington, the prime minister again vowed not to withdraw to the “indefensible” frontiers and blamed the Palestinians for the failure to resolve the decades-old conflict.
“This conflict has raged for nearly a century because the Palestinians refuse to end it. They refuse to accept the Jewish state,” he said to applause from more than 10,000 of Israel’s staunchest supporters in the United States.
His remarks came amid a public spat with President Barack Obama who had for the first time given public voice to the long-held US view that a Palestinian state be created based on the borders that existed before the 1967 Six Day War.
Such a state would include the Gaza Strip, the occupied West Bank and mostly Arab but Israel-annexed east Jerusalem, with some adjustments so that Israel can maintain settlement blocs.
Obama held to his position in his own speech to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Sunday, but made it clear the land swaps ensured Israel would not have to return to the actual border lines.
Netanyahu stood firm but continued to try to smooth over the feud, telling AIPAC that Obama had an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security and thanking him for funding Israel’s advanced missile interceptor system.
But there was also another message to the US president implicit in the roars of approval from the 11,000 AIPAC delegates and the attendance of 68 Senators and nearly 270 members of the House: Don’t push Israel too far.
House Speaker John Boehner, whose Republican party aims to oust Obama from the White House in 2012, was quick to assure the pro-Israel audience that the cause of Israel’s security had his “100 percent support.”
Even Obama’s Democratic colleagues backed away from his positions.
“No one should set parameters about borders, about building, about anything else,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told the gathering.
Several protesters interrupted Netanyahu’s speech, saying that to deny the plight of the Palestinians was “unacceptable,” but they were drowned out by the cheers of the many delegates as they were marched out of the hall by security.
“Do you think they have these protests in Gaza?” Netanyahu asked, referring to the coastal Palestinian territory ruled by the Islamist Hamas movement.
The almost unqualified support stood in contrast to the clear signs of rocky ties between Netanyahu and Obama over the last week.
In a dramatic meeting on Friday, Netanyahu emphatically rejected Obama’s remarks on borders, choosing to interpret them as a call for Israel to withdraw to the actual 1967 frontier.
He then proceeded to lecture the American president in the Oval Office on the realities of the Middle East.
Obama supervised the relaunch of negotiations in September only to see them collapse within weeks when Netanyahu refused to renew a partial freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The Palestinians — who have long viewed the expansion of settlements as the greatest obstacle to reaching a final peace deal — have refused to return to talks while Israel builds on land they want for their promised state.
A far-reaching Israeli initiative was seen as the only way of heading off a Palestinian attempt to unilaterally secure recognition of a state when the UN General Assembly meets in September.
But that was before the Western-backed Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas signed a surprise unity deal with the militant Hamas, which is blacklisted as a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and the European Union.
Netanyahu has said there can be no negotiations with the Palestinians while Hamas continues to call for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Still, he faces strong calls to put forward an Israeli peace plan in the face of mounting international support for recognizing a Palestinian state at the United Nations as a way to unblock the impasse in peace talks.