Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday that peace between Israelis and the Palestinians will be possible only when the Palestinian Authority accepts a Jewish state.
Netanyahu, who was repeatedly interrupted by applause from members of both parties during his 45-minute address, said his country could be “generous” about the size of a Palestinian state as long as its borders did not threaten Israel’s national security.
“Our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state, it's always been about the existence of a Jewish state,” Netanyahu said in a speech at the conclusion of a five-day trip to Washington. “This is what this conflict is about.”
House and Senate members attending the speech leapt to their feet to offer an ovation when Netanyahu said: “Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967."
At the same time, Netanyahu acknowledged that some existing Israeli settlements would be left outside borders created under a peace deal.
President Obama on Thursday said peace negotiations should be based on the boundary lines that existed in 1967 plus border swaps. The remarks angered Netanyahu, who on Friday lectured to the president on-camera that Israel would not accept those border lines. He has reiterated that position in other public appearances in Washington.
Netanyahu said those old boundaries would make it difficult to defend Israel from terrorist attacks and blamed the Palestinian Authority for its recent reconciliation with Hamas, which continues to call for the destruction of Israel.
“Peace must be anchored in security,” he said Tuesday. “Peace cannot be imposed. It must be negotiated.”
“It's time for [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas to stand before his people and say, 'I will accept a Jewish state.' Those six words will change history,” he said.
Speeches by foreign leaders to both chambers of Congress are not always well attended, but most senators and House members appeared to make time for Netanyahu’s high-profile address. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had invited him to speak to the joint meeting.
Another condition for a peace deal, Netanyahu said, is Jerusalem should never be divided. He called it “absolutely vital” that the Palestinian state be fully demilitarized and that Israel maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River. And he continued to reject the idea of negotiating with the Palestinian Authority as long as it maintains its pact with Hamas.
“So I say to President Abbas, 'Tear up your pact with Hamas,’” Netanyahu said. “Sit down and negotiate. Make peace with a Jewish state. And if you do, I promise you this: Israel will not be the last country to welcome a Palestinian state as a new member of the United Nations. It will be the first to do so.”
Netanyahu issued a stiff warning about the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran, calling Iran "foremost" among the forces that are working against democracy in the Middle East.
"A nuclear-armed Iran would ignite a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Those who dismiss it are sticking their heads in the sand," he said, adding that a nuclear Iran has repercussions far beyond the Middle East.
"I want you to understand what this means," he said. "They could put a bomb anywhere. They could put it on a missile. They're working on missiles that could reach this city."
He said Iran should pay a steep price for continuing to call for the end of the Jewish state. "Leaders who spew such venom should be banned from every respectable forum on the planet," he said.
Netanyahu said calls for the end of Israel are often met with "utter silence" or even criticisms that Israel should not defend herself.
"Not you. Not America," he said to applause, adding that Israel deeply appreciates continued U.S. calls for sanctions against Iran. "History will salute you, America."
Netanyahu opened his remarks by congratulating Obama for finding and killing Osama bin Laden.
"Congratulations, America," he said. "Congratulations, Mr. President. You got bin Laden. Good riddance!"
The statement drew the other long ovation for Netanyahu, with the applause led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
"Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel," he said to great applause.
Turning to Vice President Joe Biden, Netanyahu, who first addressed a joint meeting of Congress in 1996, said to laughter, "Mr. Vice President, do you remember the time when we were the new kids in town?"
Netanyahu was interrupted a few minutes into his speech by a protester in the House galley. A woman jumped up and screamed, "End Israeli war crimes!" before being subdued by people around her and escorted out of the chamber by plain-clothes security. She yelled "Equal rights for Palestinians" as she was pulled out.
Netanyahu turned the interruption into another applause line.
"You know, I take it as a badge of honor, and so should you, that in our free societies you can have protests," he said. "You can't have these protests in the farcical parliaments of Tehran or Tripoli. This is real democracy."
After the speech, Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) said that, on the issue of Israel's borders, he agrees with Netanyahu over Obama – and that most of Congress feels the same.
"The benefit of the doubt as it pertains to the lines should go to those who have to defend those lines," Andrews said.
He said Obama's borderline proposal is the equivalent of rewarding Hamas: "Tilting toward Hamas rewards violent behavior."
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) called the speech "excellent."
"It was clear that he was prepared to make concessions, but in the context of Israel’s security," he said of Netanyahu. "He was prepared to make sure that the Palestinian state was of sufficient size to be successful, but I think he was very realistic."
— Russell Berman, Mike Lillis and Josiah Ryan contributed to this report.
— This story was posted at 12:04 p.m. and last updated at 2:29 p.m.