Backgrounder: U.S. President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Speeches

U.S. President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu gave important speeches in Washington DC over the past week.

President Obama began with a major foreign policy speech at the US State Department on May 19. His remarks caused controversy when he addressed the territorial basis on which a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement might be negotiated, referencing the 1967 borders as the point of departure. In a subsequent speech to AIPAC two days later, he clearly defined that border issues must be the result of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and would include negotiated land swaps.

In both speeches, President Obama defined general parameters for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Specifically, he made important references to Israel as a Jewish state, to the incompatibility of a rejectionist Hamas as a negotiating partner, and to the non-militarized character of any future Palestinian entity. As well, he dismissed the legitimacy of a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence (UDI), and called for an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley following a peace accord in order to ensure security. One area of special concern was Obama’s failure to re-affirm that Palestinian statehood cannot be treated as a discrete goal from an “end of conflict” peace agreement with Israel. That said, overall, his messages were a net gain for Israel.

On May 24th, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of the United States Congress. The address, which was very warmly received, centered on two themes: the essential elements that Israel will need in any final peace agreement, and Israel's preparedness to make painful compromises for peace.

At the core of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s remarks was an affirmation that the core obstacle to peace in the region has never been about the acceptance of a Palestinian state. Rather, the central obstacle to peace is the rejection of a Jewish state.

Highlights of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Speech to a Joint Session of Congress:

 Prime Minister Netanyahu called on President Abbas to stand before his people and utter six words that could change history “I will accept a Jewish State.” Netanyahu pointed out that he himself had already affirmed his acceptance of Palestinian statehood before the Israeli people.

  • Netanyahu ruled out negotiations with Hamas.
  • Netanyahu affirmed that Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel.
  • Israel will be generous on the size of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu stated that a Palestinian state must be big enough to be viable, to be independent, and to be prosperous.
  • Palestinians from around the world should have a right to immigrate to a future Palestinian state. Specifically, the Palestinian refugee problem must be resolved outside the borders of Israel.
  • Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967, but would be prepared to make painful concessions, including ceding control of parts of what Jews regard as their ancestral homeland, in exchange for peace.
  • Israel will be the first country to welcome a Palestinian state as a new member to the United Nations following a peace agreement.
  • A nuclear armed Iran would ignite an arms race in the Middle East and would provide terrorists with a nuclear umbrella.
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