Netanyahu to outline peace vision in speech to U.S. Congress

WASHINGTON Tue May 24, 2011 4:55am BST

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington May 23, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington May 23, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would set forth his view of a future Middle East peace in an address to the U.S. Congress on Tuesday and reaffirmed Israel would never return to its old, narrow borders.

"I will outline a vision for a secure Israeli-Palestinian peace," the right-wing Israeli leader said on Monday about his planned address to a joint meeting of Congress.

"I intend to speak the unvarnished truth. Now more than ever what we need is clarity."

Addressing the annual policy conference of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby group, Netanyahu appeared to keep alive a public dispute with President Barack Obama over the shape of a future Palestine.

"(A peace agreement) must leave Israel with security, and therefore Israel cannot return to the indefensible 1967 lines," he said, repeating a term he had used at a testy meeting with Obama at the White House on Friday.

Obama drew Israeli anger a day earlier when he said a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip should largely be drawn along lines that existed before the 1967 war in which Israel captured those areas and East Jerusalem.

On Sunday, Obama presented that blueprint in his own address to AIPAC on Sunday. But he seemed to ease Israeli anger somewhat when he made clear Israel would likely be able to negotiate keeping some settlements as part of a land swap in any final deal with the Palestinians.

Peace talks are frozen, largely over the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Neither Obama nor Netanyahu have offered a concrete plan to try to revive them.

CONGRESSIONAL SUPPORT

Netanyahu has a mostly sympathetic ear in Congress, where few lawmakers in either party speak up for the Palestinians, hewing to decades of close U.S.-Israeli ties.

"Support for Israel doesn't divide America, it unites America. It unites the old and the young, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans," Netanyahu told AIPAC.

"Netanyahu will most likely try to tone down any perceived differences between his position and the president's, because his disagreements with President Obama have become counterproductive for both and ultimately undermine Israel's own interests," said Haim Malka, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

But Republicans in Congress, including leaders in the House of Representatives, are not about to drop their criticism of the Democratic president's newly articulated Mideast vision.

House Republican Leader Eric Cantor said Monday that Obama's comments on Middle East borders left "most Americans ... just questioning what kind of strategy there is. It doesn't make sense to force a democratic ally of ours into negotiating with now a terrorist organisation" about land swaps.

Cantor was referring to a unity deal last month between Western-backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement and Hamas, an Islamist group viewed by the United States as a terrorist organisation.

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch's office says he will introduce a resolution saying that it is not U.S. policy to have Israel's borders return to the boundaries of 1967.

Speculation had been high in Israel that Netanyahu would offer new ideas on peacemaking to try to display flexibility and rally opposition to the Palestinians' plan to ask the United Nations to recognise a Palestinian state in September.

In his AIPAC address, Netanyahu reiterated his demand that Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state, a step they fear could impinge on their claim of a right of return for Palestinian refugees displaced by the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Netanyahu first addressed a joint meeting of Congress in 1996 during his first term as prime minister.

While Obama won the Jewish vote overwhelmingly in 2008, some prominent Jewish Americans were rethinking their support for his re-election after this week's events.

Israeli leaders have long regarded AIPAC as a valuable advocacy group in the United States and have frequently attended its annual conventions.

Listing a membership of 100,000, the group has worked with Congress and the White House on securing foreign aid for Israel and legislation to strengthen what it describes as the vital U.S.-Israel relationship.

AIPAC's dominant voice in advocating for Israel has been challenged by J Street, a pro-Israel lobby founded in 2009.

J Street leaders have said the group provides a way for liberal American Jews critical of Israeli government policies to support the Jewish state.

Unlike AIPAC, the group supports President Obama's demand that Israel cease settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, while calling on the Palestinians to end incitement and violence.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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