WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed U.S. Congress on Tuesday, once again dismissing Barack Obama’s recent call for Israel to return to pre-1967 borders as he spoke to a cheering group of largely sympathetic lawmakers who disagree with the president’s stand.
In a feisty speech to a Congress that’s almost uniformly pro-Israel regardless of party line, Netanyahu noted that Israel has support from “Democrats and Republicans alike.”
“Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967,” he said as one of about two dozen standing ovations rocked the chamber.
“The border will be different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967…. Israel will be generous on the size of the Palestinian state but we will be very firm” on the location of its borders.
Jerusalem will not be on the table in any reignited peace talks with Palestinians, Netanyahu added. Obama wants talks to resume in September, but that’s looking like an increasingly unattainable deadline.
“Jerusalem must never again be divided, it must remain the united capital of Israel,” Netanyahu said.
The Israeli prime minister’s appearance before Congress comes four days after he rebuked Obama during a tense Oval Office photo-op described by the Wall Street Journal “as one of the most undiplomatic moments of international diplomacy ever offered for the cameras.”
While Republicans cheered what they believed was a justified Obama smackdown, the leader of Israel’s opposition party accused Netanyahu of seriously damaging U.S.-Israeli relations with his Oval Office behaviour, and called for his resignation. Editorials in liberal Israeli newspapers were also critical.
On Tuesday, however, there was no sign of any anger directed Netanyahu’s way as reverential American lawmakers greeted him with warm applause. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives issued the invitation for Netanyahu to speak to Congress, apparently with the blessing of the White House.
Vice President Joe Biden sat behind the Israeli leader’s podium, alongside House speaker John Boehner, as Netanyahu laid out his plans for peace in the Middle East.
Republicans have condemned Obama for his Middle East speech last week. They’ve seized upon the controversy surrounding the 1967 border proposal, believing it will be a wedge issue in the 2012 election and cost the president Jewish votes.
Even some high-profile Democrats, including Senate majority leader Harry Reid, have parted ways with their commander-in-chief. Reid said earlier this week that any pre-conditions for Israeli-Palestinian are “premature.”
Ed Koch, the former Democratic mayor of New York City, has been harshly critical of Obama. Koch campaigned for Obama in parts of Florida in 2008.
“If President Obama does not change his position, I cannot vote for his re-election,” Koch said earlier this week.
White House officials, meantime, point out that the 1967 border lines have been the framework for Middle East negotiations for a decade, although Obama is the first president to publicly promote them as the basis of future peace talks.
Nonetheless, Republican strategists hope Obama’s thorny relationship with Netanyahu and his stances on Israel could prompt dismayed Jews to flock to the party in 2012. The Republican party has attempted for years, with minimal success, to lure Jewish voters and campaign contributions away from Democratic candidates.
Obama won 78 per cent of the Jewish vote in 2008, but Republican insiders believe his positions on Israel since becoming president could help Republican candidates win tight races in crucial swing states like Florida and Ohio.
“I think it is likely to impact the Jewish vote — it was an unnecessary wound, a self-inflicted wound and a wound that will not heal very quickly,” Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s former press secretary and now a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s board of directors, told The Hill, a congressional newspaper.
In 2009, Obama called for Israel to suspend new settlements in the West Bank. Since then, his relationship with Netanyahu has been a rocky one.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton alerted Netanyahu that Obama was going to call for a return to pre-1967 borders in his speech last week on the eve of the Israeli leader’s visit to D.C. The prime minister attempted to convince American officials to remove the border language from Obama’s speech, and was furious when he was rebuffed.
Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was decidedly less combative than his Oval Office remarks. He even kicked it off by congratulating the president for the killing of al Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden earlier this month by Navy SEALs.
“Congratulations, America. Congratulations, Mr. President,” Netanyahu said. “You got bin Laden! Good riddance!”
He also stressed Israel’s loyalty to the United States.
“In an unstable Middle East, Israel is the one anchor of stability,” he added. “Israel has always been pro-American, Israel will always be pro-American.”
At a media availability after his speech, the love-in continued as Netanyahu praised the U.S. legislators who joined him, including Boehner, Reid, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi, Democratic minority House leader.
“I’ve known these friends of Israel a long time. They’re true, steadfast friends,” he said. “I was delighted to see these anchors of the Israel-American alliance …. It’s heartwarming.”