Ethan Bronner, Helene Cooper
The New York Times
May 24, 2011 - 12:00am

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, broadly laying out the Israeli response to President Obama’s peace proposals, called on the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, on Tuesday to accept what Mr. Netanyahu framed as a tenet: that Palestinians will not get a right of return to Israel. In so doing, he made clear that he was giving no ground on the major stumbling blocks to a peace agreement.

“I stood before my people and said that I will accept a Palestinian state; it’s time for President Abbas to stand up before his people and say, ‘I will accept a Jewish state,’ ” Mr. Netanyahu said to cheers from a hugely friendly crowd of Democratic and Republican lawmakers gathered in the House chamber of the Capitol.

“Those six words will change history,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “With those six words, the Israeli people will be prepared to make a far-reaching compromise. I will be prepared to make a far-reaching compromise.”

Of course, those words have bedeviled peace negotiators since 1979. Refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and across the Palestinian diaspora want a right of return to the homes they left, or were forced to leave, in Israel. But Israeli officials say a flood of refugees would mean more Arabs than Jews in Israel and could threaten Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state.

Beyond that, as Mr. Netanyahu himself indicated a few minutes later, it would take more than the Palestinians’ acceptance of the Jewish state for Israel to sign a peace agreement. He also said that “Jerusalem will never again be divided,” and added that Israel’s 1967 borders were not defensible. He said new boundaries would need to incorporate large blocs of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and that any peace deal would have to include an Israeli Army presence along the Jordan River.

And, he said, Israel will not negotiate with the Palestinians until Mr. Abbas abandons the recently negotiated unity agreement between his Fatah party and Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza and has refused to accept Israel’s right to exist.

Mr. Netanyahu was granted a grand platform before a joint meeting of Congress, and his speech had many of the trappings of a presidential State of the Union address. With elections coming up next year, the lawmakers appeared eager to demonstrate their support for Israel as part of an effort to secure backing from one of the country’s most powerful constituencies, American Jews.

Mr. Netanyahu received so many standing ovations that at times it appeared that the lawmakers were listening to his speech standing up. “He managed to rally wall-to-wall support from Congress,” said Rob Malley, program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. But, he warned, it might have been a pyrrhic victory for the Israeli prime minister.

“We’re not talking about a peace process anymore; we’re talking about a P.R. process,” he said. “None of this is going to help avert any of the dangers that the president mentioned in his Sunday speech, that Israel faces.”

Obama administration officials said only progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will win European support for the American effort to stymie a United Nations endorsement of Palestinian statehood in September. And Mr. Obama has portrayed such progress as crucial during a time of democratic upheaval in the Arab world.

Mr. Netanyahu’s speech was the culmination of a tumultuous five days that began on Thursday, when President Obama called for the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed land swaps. Mr. Netanyahu initially reacted furiously to Mr. Obama’s announcement, but in the past few days he has sought to emphasize their areas of agreement.

Mr. Netanyahu also talked about the populist upheaval in the Arab world, casting Israel as a democratic island in a despotic corner of world. “In a region where women are stoned, gays are persecuted,” Mr. Netanyahu said, “Israel stands out.”

His speech broke no new ground concerning the peace process, but it was not expected to. Israeli officials said that Mr. Netanyahu could hardly lay out new proposals to an American audience without telling his own people first.

Palestinian officials were dismissive of Mr. Netanyahu’s message, saying it included no new concessions along with the new demands.

“This is not going to lead to any solution,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Mr. Abbas, said by telephone. “Not only is he saying no Jerusalem and no return of refugees and keeping his soldiers along the Jordan, but he is demanding that we tear up our accord with Hamas. We will never accept an Israeli presence in the Palestinian state, especially along the Jordan River.”

The Palestinian leadership is due to meet on Wednesday to discuss the latest statements from Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu. On Saturday, foreign ministers from some Arab League nations will meet with Mr. Abbas in Qatar to fashion an Arab response.

When Mr. Netanyahu’s invitation to speak to Congress was announced, it was reported in Israel that he might offer a new formula for a Palestinian state. But after the Fatah-Hamas accord and Mr. Obama’s endorsement of a solution based on the 1967 lines, that did not happen.

Still, Israeli settlers and their supporters condemned Mr. Netanyahu for giving away too much.

Naftali Bennet, a leader of the Yesha Council, an umbrella group for settlers, said that concessions made by Mr. Netanyahu over the past 10 days were unacceptable.

They included, he said, the idea of maintaining only an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River, as opposed to annexing the Jordan Valley, and the mention to Congress that some settlements would inevitably be left out of Israel’s borders under any deal with the Palestinians.

Helene Cooper reported from Washington, and Ethan Bronner from Jerusalem. Isabel Kershner contributed reporting.


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