Israel PM to spell out views on peace

2011-05-23 08:49

Washington – After rejecting US President Barack Obama’s vision for Middle East peace, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a chance to lay out how he thinks the comatose process can be revived.

In fact, Netanyahu will have two opportunities: first in a speech to the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington this evening and then in an address to both houses of Congress the following day.

The two occasions come after Obama for the first time gave public voice to the long-held view of the US administration that a Palestinian state must be created based on the borders that existed before the 1967 Six Day War, with some adjustments so that Israel can maintain settlement blocs.

In a dramatic appearance on Friday, Netanyahu emphatically rejected this, choosing to interpret it as a call for Israel to withdraw to the actual 1967 frontier, which he called militarily “indefensible” before proceeding to lecture the US president in the Oval Office.

Despite his strident tone, however, observers believe Netanyahu’s speeches could be more conciliatory, both toward Obama and toward the Palestinians.

Quoting an unnamed senior official travelling with Netanyahu, the Israeli Ynet website said the prime minister could announce concessions to the Palestinians as a “gift” to Obama.

And his tone was expected to be “softer and more respectful” to Obama, Ynet said.

Netanyahu’s spokesperson called the report “speculation”, and said the prime minister was still crafting his speeches.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu issued a statement after Obama’s speech to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) lobby yesterday that was far more accommodating and promised “to work together with President Obama to find ways to renew the peace negotiations”.

“Peace is crucial for all of us,” Netanyahu said.

Obama supervised the relaunch of negotiations last September only to see them collapse within weeks when Netanyahu refused to renew a partial freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The Palestinians then refused to return to talks while Israel builds on land they want for their promised state.

Netanyahu’s planned address to US lawmakers has long been posited as the forum for a major policy speech, laying out the details of what he would be prepared to do to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.

A far-reaching Israeli initiative was seen as the only way of heading off a Palestinian attempt to unilaterally secure recognition of a state when the UN General Assembly meets in September.

But that was before Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas signed a surprise unity deal with the Islamist Hamas.

Since then Netanyahu has said there can be no negotiations with the Palestinians while Hamas, which is designated a terror group by Israel, the US and the European Union, continues to call for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Still, Netanyahu faces strong calls to put forward an Israel peace plan in the face of mounting international support for recognising a Palestinian state as a way to unblock the impasse in peace talks.

And, critics say, it will show whether Netanyahu is serious about peace.

“When Netanyahu decided to go to Washington, he took a huge risk. Some people think he was wrong; others believe he was right,” wrote commentator Ari Shavit in the liberal Haaretz daily.

“But the importance of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress is that he is creating a moment of truth. This moment obliges the prime minister to show his true self.”

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