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US Congress Gives Netanyahu Speech An Enthusiastic Response

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 24, 2011
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 24, 2011

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has received an exuberant welcome from a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress.  The Israeli leader told lawmakers his vision of how to achieve a lasting peace with the Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was happy to return to the U.S. Capitol, where he gave his first speech to a joint meeting in 1996.

He emphasized the strong bonds between Israel and the United States. "In an unstable Middle East, Israel is the one anchor of stability.  In a region of shifting alliances, Israel is America's unwavering ally.  Israel has always been pro-American, Israel will always be pro-American," said the Israeli prime minister.

Netanyahu's speech was interrupted at least 29 times for standing ovations, and once by a young woman protester who unfurled a banner and shouted, "No more occupation, end Israeli war crimes."  She was quickly removed from the House gallery.

Netanyahu said the Middle East now stands at a crossroads, and commended the courageous Arab protesters who have taken to the streets in a number of countries.  He pointed out that Israel has long had a robust democracy and that its citizens enjoy civil liberties denied elsewhere in the Middle East.

"In a region where women are stoned, gays are hanged, Christians are persecuted, Israel stands out. It is different," he said.

The Israeli Prime Minister singled out Iran as one of the most powerful forces opposing democracy in the region, and warned of the ongoing danger he said Iran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons poses.  

"After six million Jews were murdered, Iran's leaders deny the Holocaust of the Jewish people, while calling for the annihilation of the Jewish state.  Leaders who spew such venom should be banned from every respectable forum on the planet," he said.

Since arriving late last week in Washington, Netanyahu and President Barack Obama have publicly clashed about the basis for reviving the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected returning to the pre-1967 war borders.  President Obama told a pro-Israeli lobbying group on Sunday that Israel must "make the hard choices" necessary to reach a peace agreement.  He said they include basing the borders of Israel and a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed land swaps.

 Map of Israeli pre-1967 borders

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, the most powerful Democrat in the Senate, spoke to the same group late Monday, and gave support to Netanyahu's stance and not to President Obama's.  Senator Reid said negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians must take place at the negotiating table - and nowhere else - not in speeches.

“No one should set premature parameters about borders, about building, or about anything else,” he said.

In his address to Congress, Netanyahu emphasized the points of agreement with President Obama and praised him repeatedly, without giving any ground on his own position on the borders in a future peace agreement.

"We will be generous about the size of the future Palestinian state, but as President Obama said, the border will be different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967," he said. "Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967.

Netanyahu also called for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to stand before his people and declare that he will accept a Jewish state, and to tear up his unity pact with the militant organization Hamas.  He also said Israel must continue to have a military presence in the Jordan Valley, and that Jerusalem must never be divided.

A spokesman for the Palestinian president quickly responded to the Israeli leader's speech to Congress, saying Netanyahu had put more obstacles in the way of a Middle East peace agreement by imposing impossible conditions.

The two-decade old Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been at a standstill since September due to a dispute over Jewish settlement building on land captured in the 1967 war.  Palestinians say peace must be based on the 1967 boundaries and they will not accept any Israeli military presence in their future state.

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