WASHINGTON – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged Tuesday to make "painful compromises" for peace with the Palestinians but said he would not agree to any deal that threatens Israel's security or its identity as a Jewish state.
Speaking before a wildly receptive joint meeting of Congress that showered him with more than two dozen sustained standing ovations, Netanyahu said Israel wants and needs peace but repeated his flat rejection of a return to what he called the "indefensible" borders that existed before the 1967 Mideast war. He also restated Israel's refusal to entertain the return of millions of Palestinian refugees and their families to land in Israel. And, he maintained that Jerusalem, claimed by both sides as their capital, could not be divided.
"Israel will never give up its quest for peace," Netanyahu said, adding that he is "willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historic peace."
But he said Israel would not negotiate with terrorists and urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to rip up a power-sharing agreement that his moderate Fatah faction has signed with the militant group Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist.
"We must take calls for our destruction seriously," Netanyahu said, recalling the Holocaust and the absolute imperative not to allow the Jewish people to suffer new massacres. "When we say `never again, we mean `never again,' " he said.
Israel, which enjoys strong bipartisan backing in Congress, has been rattled by President Barack Obama's support for drawing the future borders of a Palestinian state and a Jewish state on the basis of Israel's pre-1967 war frontiers. Obama has also called for a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank; something that Netanyahu said is possible only in the very long term.
Obama has not called for a return to the exact borders that Israel held before capturing east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War of June 1967. He, like the Palestinians, is open to land swaps so Israel can hold on to settlements it built after the 1967 war. Obama has not, however, offered proposals for how to return the two sides to the bargaining table. The Palestinians are refusing to come back as long as Israeli settlement construction continues.
Netanyahu congratulated the United States for killing al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, wishing him "good riddance" and making the case that America and Israel are paragons of democracy. Netanyahu dismissed early shouts from a female protester as evidence that freedom of speech is alive and well in the United States and is respected in both countries, while it is punished in Arab states now going through upheaval.
He also repeatedly thanked Congress for its support of Israel, which he said supports true democracy throughout the Middle East and wants peace with its Arab neighbors. (AP)