Just days after dismissing any calls for a return to his nation's 1967 borders, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out his own plan for peace before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.
In what felt like a State of the Union address (but with both sides of the audience giving standing ovations), Netanyahu told a sympathetic audience that if Palestinians are willing to accept the existence of a Jewish state, he would be willing to make “far-reaching compromises” to help advance the creation of a Palestinian state.
“Israel will be generous on the size of the Palestinian state,” he said. “But we'll be very firm on where we put the border with it.”
Netanyahu reiterated that Israel would by no means be returning its 1967 borders, an idea that has been rattling around Capitol Hill since last week when President Obama said he would like to see those delineations used as a starting point for negotiations.
It was a suggestion that rankled some members of Congress, including high-ranking Democratic allies of the president.
“The place where negotiating will happen must be at the negotiating table—and nowhere else,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada declared in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday night. “Those negotiations will not happen—and their terms will not be set—through speeches, or in the streets, or in the media."
Amid the outcry, Obama was forced to clarify what he meant in front of the AIPAC on Sunday.
“Since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what ‘1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps’ means,” Obama said. “By definition, it means that the parties themselves—Israelis and Palestinians—will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. That’s what mutually agreed-upon swaps mean.”
After seeming to go on the offensive after Obama’s original remarks, Netanyahu appeared to cut the president some slack in his address on Tuesday, saying, “As President Obama said, the border will be different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.”
Democrats after Tuesday's speech downplayed any suggestions that there is tension between Netanyahu and Obama, saying there is little daylight between the two leaders over how to proceed with peace negotiations with Palestinians.
“What the prime minister said today is reflective of what the president feels—that the ’67 borders are a starting point,” Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said after the speech. “They will be changed, as the president said, with agreed-to swaps.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., likewise called the Obama’s recent speeches and Netanyahu’s address today “complementary.”
“I thought the president’s and the prime minister’s addresses were unbelievably well-fit puzzle pieces,” she said.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., said the speech could help move along the stalled negotiations. “People will interpret their own things, but I saw opportunities in it,” he said.
Members of Congress from both parties were receptive to Netanyahu's speech.
“It is clear from the response to your speech that our colleagues on both sides of the aisle, from both sides of the Capitol, believe that you advanced the cause of peace,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told the prime minister after his speech.
And from the other side of the aisle and the other side of the Capitol, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., seemed to be in agreement.
“[Netanyahu] should return home knowing that at a time when the Middle East is awash in instability, his relationship with the Congress is strong,” McConnell said in a statement.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Republican member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia agreed.
"I wholeheartedly support the basis for a negotiated Arab-Israeli peace that Prime Minister Netanyahu outlined. Israel’s peace must first and foremost be based in security, therefore, there cannot be a return to the borders of 1967,” he said. “Additionally, Palestinian refugees should have the right to return to a demilitarized Palestinian state established through a negotiated peace – not the Jewish state. And more importantly, Jerusalem must be the eternal undivided capital of the State of Israel.”
While the speech was well received by the congressional audience, it didn’t go off without a hitch. Early in the speech, a protester interrupted Netanyahu's speech, shouting "end the occupation!" and displaying a sign that said the same. She was quickly detained and removed from the chamber as lawmakers and guests in the viewing gallery drowned out her protests with cheers. Netanyahu took it in stride, going off script to note that only in free democracies are such protesters tolerated.
Megan Scully contributed