Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out what he called his vision for peace with the Palestinians Tuesday, but listed a set of conditions the Palestinians immediately called "a declaration of war."
Speaking before a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress that capped five days of speeches by Netanyahu and President Barack Obama on the Middle East, Netanyahu insisted on a unified Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, reiterated his rejection of the borders that existed before Israel began its occupation of the West Bank 44 years ago, and declared that Israel must maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley.
Palestinians have repeatedly declared their desire to negotiate a two-state solution where Jerusalem would be the capital of both states, with borders based on the June 4, 1967 lines with agreed and equivalent land swaps, and full sovereignty over the West Bank, of which the Jordan Valley is a large part.
Netanyahu was elaborating on some remarks he had made the previous day, before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobby group described by CNN as "a major force in U.S. politics." Obama had spoken to AIPAC the day before, and his speech was well-received by the audience and observers.
Obama stressed the importance of immediate movement on the peace process.
"There is an impatience with the peace process or the absence of one," he told the AIPAC audience. "Not just in the Arab World, but in Latin America, in Europe, and in Asia. That impatience is growing, and is already manifesting itself in capitals around the world."
Consistent with his call in a speech three days earlier, Obama then outlined his vision for borders and security, which he had said should be the first two issues tackled.
"The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps… As for security, every state has the right to self- defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself by itself against any threatâ€¦ The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state."
The following day, Netanyahu and Obama met in the Oval Office, with the subsequent press briefing featuring comments from Netanyahu that many observers, including leading Israelis, saw as crossing the line.
"Netanyahu understood that he had broken a rule that an Israeli leader must not break – he had come between the two American parties in an election period," Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer, two leading Israeli commentators, wrote in the leading Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronot.
Staunchly pro-Israel columnist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic called Netanyahu’s behavior at the press conference "pedantic" and "shocking."
On Monday, Netanyahu struck a more conciliatory tone at AIPAC, stressing bipartisan support for Israel among U.S. citizens and in Congress.
He promised that, in his speech at Tuesday’s joint meeting of Congress, he would "describe what a peace between a Palestinian state and the Jewish state could look like."
But his vision seemed only to make the stalemate with the Palestinians even more intractable, this time with the overwhelming enthusiasm of both Houses of Congress backing him.
"Rather than committing to a return to negotiations without preconditions, as he demands from the Palestinians, Netanyahu introduced his own preconditions," said Debra DeLee, president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now.
"Rather than extending his hand to the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table, Netanyahu laid out unyielding positions which he knows cannot serve as the basis for, or be the realistic outcome of, negotiations. Such preconditions are a non-starter and such positions are anathema to reviving negotiations and to achieving real peace and security for Israel."
The speech was "a declaration of war against the Palestinians," said leading Palestinian official, Nabil Sha’ath. "This is an escalation and unfortunately, it received a standing ovation. We have nothing but to continue our struggle in the international arena and to continue building our state and to continue our popular struggle. We don’t have a partner for peace."
Nabil Abu Rdainah, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said, "What Netanyahu put in his speech before the U.S. Congress does not lead to peace, but puts more obstacles to the peace process. For us, peace must be the establishment of a Palestinian state on 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as its capital. We will not accept any Israeli presence in the Palestinian state, especially on the Jordan River."
But while many applauded President Obama’s speech at AIPAC and his insistence on the 1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations, other observers blamed Obama for the failure to take a strong enough stand with Netanyahu.
"Obama did not call for a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from occupied Palestinian territory," Professor Stephen Zunes, chair of the Middle Eastern Studies programme at the University of San Francisco, told IPS.
"Unfortunately, despite Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas agreeing to reciprocal territorial swap… Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has refused to consider trading any land within Israel while simultaneously insisting on annexing large swathes of occupied Palestinian territory," he said. "How such ‘mutually agreed-upon’ swaps will take place without the United States exerting enormous leverage is hard to imagine.
"This raises serious questions regarding Obama’s commitment to being an honest broker in resolving the conflict," Zunes said.
Despite the unanimous support Netanyahu’s speeches received, at AIPAC and in Congress, both talks were disrupted by protesters.
Five protesters at AIPAC and one in Congress were removed from the proceedings after interrupting Netanyahu’s speeches, shouting slogans in defense of Palestinian rights.
Rae Abileah, the protester arrested for her disruption of the Congressional meeting, is a 28-year-old Jewish American of Israeli descent.
"Prime Minister Netanyahu says that the 1967 borders are indefensible," Abileah said. "But what is really indefensible is the occupation of land, the starvation of Gaza, the jailing of dissenters and the lack of equal rights in the alleged Israeli democracy. As a Jew and an American taxpayer, I can’t be silent when these crimes are being committed in my name and with my tax money."