US & Canada

Netanyahu chooses to make things worse with Capitol Hill speech

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking on Capitol Hill to US lawmakers
Image caption Mr Netanyahu's speech on Capitol Hill received rounds of applause

It was not as if there was a chance of peace for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to squander in Washington. No peace process worth talking about exists to be revived. But he had a choice of making matters worse or better, and he chose to make them worse.

Not that you would have known that if your only contact with the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis was watching Mr Netanyahu's speech to a joint session of the US Congress.

Congressional lawmakers are not just pro-Israeli, like most Americans. They support Mr Netanyahu's specific vision of Israel, judging by their response to his speech.

At home, where the Israeli prime minister has plenty of critics who do not share his view of Israel's relations with its neighbours, he can only dream of getting the kind of reception that he had on Capitol Hill.

They seemed to love him. And he certainly loves them.

The congressmen and women laughed at his jokes. They lapped up his declarations of loyalty and friendship for the US and leapt to their feet when he exclaimed, "You got Bin Laden. Good riddance!"

Most importantly, they accepted his view of Israel's security.

Rounds of applause

His speech to Congressional lawmakers was punctuated by around 30 standing ovations.

Some of the biggest came when he listed the things Palestinians would have to accept to make a deal with him.

"Jerusalem must never again be divided, it must remain the united capital of Israel," he said to waves of applause.

Palestinians want a capital in East Jerusalem.

Mr Netanyahu also demanded a continuing Israeli military presence along what would become an independent Palestine's border with Jordan.

But the Palestinians want to control their own borders.

Mr Netanyahu ruled out any right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

Image caption Mr Netanyahu called for a continued Israeli military presence near Jordan's border

The most realistic of the theoretical peace deals that have been thrashed out over long years of meetings at neutral locations between well-meaning Israelis and Palestinians assume there would only be a token return of refugees.

But it is supposed to be an issue to be decided by negotiation, not by a unilateral declaration.

Mr Netanyahu spoke of painful compromises for peace.

Some Israeli right wingers have criticised him for saying that some Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank would not end up inside Israel.

But Mr Netanyahu is a long way from offering what would be necessary for a deal with the Palestinians.

His predecessor Ehud Olmert offered much more.

Refusing offers

The Palestinians, aware that Mr Olmert's time as prime minister was running out because of corruption allegations, chose not to take what he had offered.

So there was never going to be any possibility that they would be interested in Mr Netanyahu's offer.

Even when he spoke of giving up land that has been occupied and illegally settled since it was captured in the 1967 Middle East war, he chose a defiant tone.

Using the biblical names for the West Bank, he told Congress "you have to understand this - in Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers".

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' response was that Israel had offered "nothing to build on".

He said that if there was no progress by September, he would go ahead with the Palestinians' own unilateral plan, which is to get their independence recognised by the UN General Assembly in New York.

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Media captionBenjamin Netanyahu: "Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967"

The idea has been rejected by Israel and the US, which will pressurise their European allies to follow their example.

But in Europe the Palestinians might have more support.

The reception Mr Netanyahu had from Congress shows why he feels politically strong enough not just to ignore but to reject President Barack Obama's suggestion that Israel's permanent borders should be more or less what they were before the 1967 war, adjusted by land swaps.

Mr Netanyahu chose a photo opportunity just before the president left for his state visit to Britain to deliver a short public lecture on why the 1967 boundaries were indefensible.

The president fixed him with an unsmiling, almost unblinking stare as he spoke.

Mr Obama believes that the changes sweeping through the Middle East will affect Israel too, and that some bold steps are needed to head off worse crises in the future.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has chosen to stick with a view of Israel's security that is based on what he believes has worked well in the past.

He does not appear to believe that the new Middle East that is emerging will demand fresh thinking.

The likelihood now is that both the US and Israel will continue to be spectators as the Arab world changes.

The US is far enough away, and strong enough, to insulate itself against the backwash. Israel is not.