WASHINGTON - When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addresses Congress on Tuesday evening, many will be watching to see whether he escalates a war of words with the White House over how to make peace in the Middle East.
Netanyahu has a mostly sympathetic ear in the US Congress, where few lawmakers in either party speak up for the Palestinians, hewing to decades of close US-Israeli ties.
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But the prime minister has had a rocky relationship with US President Barack Obama, and last week said the president's vision of a Palestinian state based on the borders of 1967 could leave Israel "indefensible."
Obama articulated that vision on Thursday in a major policy speech on
the Middle East. His position essentially embraced the Palestinians'
view that the state they seek in the West Bank and Gaza should largely
be drawn along lines that existed before the 1967 war in which Israel
captured those territories and East Jerusalem.
On Sunday Obama seemed to ease Israeli anger somewhat when he made clear
that the Jewish state would likely be able to negotiate keeping some
settlements as part of a land swap in any final deal with the
Netanyahu voiced appreciation for those comments, and some analysts
think Netanyahu will not further escalate the quarrel with Obama in his
remarks to Congress on Tuesday.
"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 Center for
Strategic and International Studies.
But Republicans in Congress, including House leaders, are not about to
drop their criticism of the Democratic president's newly articulated
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 organization" about land
Cantor was referring to a unity deal last month between Palestinian
Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement and Hamas, an Islamist
group viewed by the United States as a terrorist organization.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch's office says he will introduce a
resolution that it is not U.S. policy to have Israel's borders return to
the boundaries of 1967.
ISRAELIS SAY TO EXPECT SOME SURPRISES
Israeli officials said they expected Netanyahu to deliver several
"surprises" in his address to Congress on Tuesday, but they declined to
elaborate, saying he would likely be working on a final draft up until
the last minute.
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 recognize a
Palestinian state in September.
The official Israeli statement on Netanyahu's speech noted that he is
"among the few world leaders, who include Winston Churchill, Nelson
Mandela and Yitzhak Rabin, invited to address Congress for a second
Netanyahu first addressed a joint meeting of Congress in 1996 during his first term as prime minister.
Netanyahu will speak about recent changes in the Middle East, Iran and
the principles for a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians,
the statement said.
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.