Netanyahu spurns US pressure for Palestinian deal

Israeli premier Binyamin Netanyahu has spurned American pressure to make a significant gesture towards peace to stave off international support for a declaration of Palestinian independence by telling the United States Congress that the Palestinians want a country to continue the conflict, not end it.

Netanyahu had been under pressure from the White House to outline immediate and practical steps towards peace after US President Barack Obama warned him that the US was increasingly unable to shield Israel from growing frustration over what is seen as it’s intransigence.

But while Israeli officials billed the speech as intended to “garner major international attention” and shift the ground from under the Palestinians’ attempts to win United Nations recognition for a state at a vote in September, Netanyahu remained largely unbending.

The Israeli prime minister told an overwhelmingly sympathetic Congress that it was the Palestinians themselves, led by Mahmoud Abbas, who are the main obstacle to peace. “Why has peace not been achieved? Because so far the Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it,” he said.

“President Abbas must do what I have done. I have stood before my people and I have said I will accept a Palestinian state. It’s time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say: I will accept a Jewish state. Those six words will change history … With those words, I will be prepared to make a far-reaching compromise.”

Palestinian officials accused Netanyahu of grandstanding for Congress and said his demands for an immediate recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, rather than as part of an overall peace deal, was yet another obstacle to an agreement.

“Netanyahu’s speech will not lead to peace,” said Abbas’s spokesperson, Nabil Abu Rdainah.

Netanyahu said he recognised that a peace agreement would require Israel to give up some of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, known to Israelis as Judea and Samaria. But he rejected the contention that Israelis had no legitimate claim to the West Bank.

“In Judea and Samaria the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers,” he said, to a standing ovation. “We’re not the British in India. We’re not the Belgians in [the] Congo. This is the land of our forefathers. But there is another truth. The Palestinians share this small land with us. We seek a peace in which they will be neither Israel’s subjects nor its citizens.”

Netanyahu repeated previous assertions that he was prepared to make what he called “painful sacrifices” that would involve a partial pull-out from the West Bank while retaining control of larger Jewish settlements that he described as suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

He said that Israel recognised that a Palestinian state had to be large enough to be politically and economically viable, but said that Israel would “not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967”.

“Israel will be generous on the size of the Palestinian state, but very firm on where we put the border,” he said.

Netanyahu’s at times belligerent tone is not likely to persuade countries considering how to vote at the UN on Palestinian statehood, particularly European governments. He said that support for any such move would undermine, not further, the cause of peace.

“The Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement through the United Nations will not bring peace. It should be forcefully opposed by all those who want to see this conflict end,” said Netanyahu. “Peace cannot be imposed; it must be negotiated.”

Netanyahu’s speech, and particularly his emphasis on not returning to the 1967 borders, was not only a snub to Obama, but a recognition that he has largely outmanoeuvred the White House over recent months.

At Obama’s first meeting as president with Netanyahu two years ago, the US president demanded an immediate halt to settlement construction as a first step to a swift and comprehensive peace settlement. Netanyahu openly defied the pressure, to the alarm of some in his own country who feared that he could not afford to alienate Washington. But the stand paid off for Netanyahu. Obama has since backed away from the demand on settlements.

The resignation of Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, this month marks the re-emergence of a traditional and more cautious White House approach to the conflict. Mitchell had pressed the administration to outline its own plan for a peace settlement if there was no progress between the two sides, a strategy that initially won favour among senior officials keen to break the deadlock that permitted Israel to continue expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and tighten its grip on Jerusalem.

In Mitchell’s place has re-emerged his deputy, Dennis Ross, who has served three US presidents as Middle East envoy. Ross has been criticised as being too close to Israel. His deputy at earlier negotiations, Aaron David Miller, once described him as acting as “Israel’s lawyer”. —

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Chris Mcgreal
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