WASHINGTON (JTA) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that any peace deal with the Palestinians must grant Israel a military presence along the Jordan River, exclude repatriation of Palestinian refugees to Israel and leave Jerusalem as Israel’s united capital.
However, the Israeli leader said in his address to a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday, some Jewish settlements in the West Bank would fall outside Israel’s borders in a final peace deal.
Netanyahu did not appear to offer anything new by way of substance for his vision of peace with the Palestinians, saying Israel “would be very generous” about the size of the Palestinian state but providing few details.
“Israel needs unique security arrangements, because of its unique size,” Netanyahu said.
On the dispute over Jerusalem, which he vowed would remain Israel’s undivided capital city, he said, “With creativity and with good will, a solution can be found.”
On the Palestinian refugee, he said Palestinians could not be allowed to immigrate to Israel.
“Palestinians from around the world should have the right to immigrate, if they so choose, to the Palestinian state,” he said. “The Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved outside the borders of Israel.”
On borders and security, Netanyahu reiterated his call for a presence on the western shore of the Jordan River, which demarcates the boundary between the West Bank and Jordan.
“It’s absolutely vital that a Palestinian state be demilitarized,” Netanyahu said, “and it’s absolutely vital that Israel maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River.”
In speeches on Sunday and last week, President Obama also called for a “non-militarized” Palestinian state. But the president said the issue of Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem’s status should be left for future negotiations, and that the Palestinian state should have a border with Jordan – a stance that appears to contradict that of Netanyahu.
Netanyahu received a warm reception from Congress, including more than two dozen standing ovations, and made a forceful case highlighting the commonalities between Israel and America and explaining Israel’s security challenges. He talked about the threat of Iran’s nuclear program and said the Palestinian Authority must end its agreement with Hamas, which he called “the Palestinian version of al-Qaida.”
The Israeli prime minister had an informal delivery, cracking several jokes and twice turning around to address Vice President Joe Biden. When a heckler interrupted Netanyahu at one point, Congress tried to drown her out with a standing ovation, much as the pro-Israel crowd at the annual banquet of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee did for the prime minister the previous evening.
“This is real democracy,” Netanyahu said after the heckler had been removed from the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Netanyahu repeated some lines from the night before, when most of Congress joined the crowd at the AIPAC gala. “Israel is not what is wrong about the Middle East,” Netanyahu said both days. “Israel is what is right about the Middle East.”
On the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu said, “I’m willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historic peace.” He called the West Bank the Palestinians’ homeland, but rejected the notion that it belongs to them alone.
“In Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers,” Netanyahu said, referring to the West Bank. “This is the land of our forefathers, the land of Israel to which Abraham brought the idea of one God.”
He laid the blame for the failure of the peace process on the Palestinians’ refusal to accept a Jewish state.
“Our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state,” Netanyahu said. “It’s always been about the existence of a Jewish state. That’s what this conflict is about.”
He said the Palestinians continue to incite against Israelis.
“I stood before my people and said I will accept a Palestinian state,” Netanyahu said. “It’s time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say: I will accept a Jewish state.”
As for the contours of a future Palestinian state, Netanyahu indicated that large settlement blocs would become part of Israel, along with “other areas of critical strategic and national importance,” but that, “in any real peace agreement, in any peace agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders.”
He said, “We recognize that a Palestinian state must be big enough to be viable, to be independent, to be prosperous.”
The Israeli prime minister cited Obama’s declaration that the borders will not return to those of June 4, 1967, repeating his own reaction to Obama’s May 19 speech: “Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967,” Netanyahu said.
A large part of the speech was devoted to trying to shift the focus back onto Iran’s march toward a nuclear weapon.
“They could put a bomb anywhere. They could put it in a missile,” Netanyahu said. “They could eventually put it in a suitcase or on a subway.”
Netanyahu praised Obama for shepherding sanctions against Iran through the U.N. Security Council and saluted America for not staying silent in the face of calls from Tehran for Israel’s destruction.
Netanyahu added, “The more Iran believes all options are on the table, the less the chance of confrontation.”