WASHINGTON – Israel's prime minister promised to present his vision for an Israeli-Palestinian peace in a speech before U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday, but vowed his country would not return to mid-1967 borders that he termed "indefensible."
Benjamin Netanyahu made this pledge in an address Monday to thousands of pro-Israel American Jews and U.S. lawmakers. His speech drew roaring cheers and standing ovations, a sign of the powerful backing he enjoys in the U.S. as the White House pressures him to do more to renew stalled Mideast peacemaking.
The warm reception Netanyahu enjoyed at the gala dinner of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee contrasted sharply with the contentious quality of some of his recent exchanges with President Barack Obama precisely over border issues.
His planned address on Tuesday to a joint meeting of Congress, where Israel enjoys strong bipartisan backing, could similarly remind Obama, ahead of his re-election bid, of the political price he might pay if he tries to push Netanyahu too hard.
In that speech, Netanyahu said, he will "outline a vision for a secure Israeli-Palestinian peace."
But in language that suggested he was not going to take a conciliatory pose, he promised to "speak the unvarnished truth."
"This conflict has raged for 100 years because the Palestinians refuse to end it. They refuse to accept a Jewish state."
A peace agreement, he said, must assure Israel's security: "Israel cannot return to the indefensible 1967 borders," he declared, rekindling the dispute with Obama in a possible effort to placate territorial hardliners in his government.
Borders became an issue last week when Obama, in a major Mideast policy speech, took the position that any negotiations on final borders of the Jewish and Palestinian states must be based on the boundaries Israel held in 1967 before capturing east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — lands the Palestinians claim for their hoped-for state.
In direct statements and through aides, Netanyahu suggested Obama did not understand Israel's security needs or the realities of the conflict-riven Mideast.
Obama said clearly in his policy speech and in his own address before AIPAC on Sunday that the territorial markers could be adjusted through mutually agreed land swaps — a principle accepted by the Palestinians that would allow Israel to retain major settlement blocs and help assure its security.
But Netanyahu has repeatedly sidelined this part of the Obama message.
In a sign of the sympathy Netanyahu can hope to enjoy in Congress, Obama's own political ally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, challenged Obama on the border issue at the AIPAC dinner.
"No one should set premature parameters about borders, about building or about anything else," Reid, D-Nev., said.
The reference to building alluded to earlier U.S. demands that Israel renew an expired moratorium on settlement construction.
Peacemaking with the Palestinians stalled in late 2008, shortly before Obama and Netanyahu each took office. Obama had hoped to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table and wrest a deal by September 2011. But those efforts foundered after Israel refused to extend a settlement construction slowdown and Palestinians abandoned negotiations after three short weeks, saying continued Israeli building on land they want for a future state did not show good faith.
Now, they are refocusing their strategy on trying to obtain a unilateral declaration of statehood at the U.N. when the General Assembly meets in September. Israel would like to derail that campaign, which, if successful as expected, could compound its diplomatic isolation.
The U.S. also opposes unilateral action, which would put Washington in the awkward position of having to vote against Palestinian statehood at a time when calls for greater democracy are ringing out across the Arab world.
Further complicating peace efforts is a unity deal between rival Palestinian factions that would bring violently anti-Israel Hamas militants into the Palestinian government.
Obama has said Israel should not be expected to negotiate with a government that does not recognize its right to exist.
Anti-Israel hecklers interrupted Netanyahu's speech several times, but supporters drowned them out, leaping to their feet, giving him a standing ovation and at one point chanting his nickname, "Bibi, Bibi" and pumping their arms in the air.