WASHINGTON - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a cheering Congress yesterday that he was willing to make "painful compromises" for peace with the Palestinians, but he offered little in the way of concrete proposals to entice Palestinians back to the bargaining table.
By giving such a high-profile speech before overwhelmingly supportive U.S. lawmakers, Netanyahu was able to demonstrate to Israelis that he retains strong backing in the United States despite his frosty relations with President Obama.
He also moved the needle on territorial compromise, for the first time explicitly saying in his address that Israel would have to give up some West Bank settlements.
But Palestinians immediately rejected his overall peace package, which for the most part was a recycling of previously stated positions that the Palestinians had rejected. One senior Palestinian official even dubbed the peace blueprint a "declaration of war."
Speaking before a sympathetic Congress that showered him with more than two dozen sustained standing ovations, Netanyahu said that Israel wants and needs peace and would make "generous" territorial concessions. Under any final peace accord, he added, "some settlements will be beyond Israel's borders."
But undercutting his overture was his insistence that Israel hold onto major settlement blocs and all of contested Jerusalem, that his country maintain a long-term military presence on the eastern edge of the West Bank and that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas scuttle his power-sharing agreement with the violently anti-Israel Hamas militants.
He also restated Israel's refusal to repatriate millions of Palestinians who lost homes in Israel during the fighting over the Jewish state's 1948 creation.