WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned US congressional leaders Tuesday that acceding to Palestinian demands on Jerusalem could set back peace talks by another year.
He made his case, complete with flowcharts on the Israeli bureaucracy that determines Jerusalem building permits, during a visit to Capitol Hill, following a defiant speech the previous night before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee asserting the centrality of Jerusalem.
His speech and Capitol Hill visit came between meetings with US President Barack Obama Tuesday night, Monday dinner with Vice President Joe Biden and an earlier meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who in her own address to AIPAC called Israeli building in east Jerusalem harmful to the peace process.
While members of Congress gave Netanyahu a warm reception, according to participants in the meetings, several congressional sources cautioned against taking that as a sign of agreement with Netanyahu’s stance or that the tensions in evidence between the US and Israel over the last two weeks had been resolved.
Those tensions began when an Interior Ministry committee advanced a new building project in Ramat Shlomo during a visit by Biden, a move that apparently blindsided Netanyahu and for which he apologized.
Along with US and international condemnation of the plans, which the Obama administration would like to see rolled back, the Palestinians have said that they wouldn’t enter into even indirect talks without the project being frozen.
“We must not let illogical or unreasonable demands trap us. This would draw out the diplomatic negotiations,” the prime minister said of the new Palestinian requirement, according to his spokesman.
During the visits with many members of Congress Tuesday, ahead of the White House meeting with Obama in the evening, he defended Israel’s policy of Jerusalem construction, which under various governments had included building in Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, like Ramat Shlomo.
“It was very pleasant,” said one person familiar with his meeting with House leaders, which came between meetings with Jewish representatives and senators.
Ahead of that meeting, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told reporters that she was honored to welcome Netanyahu, whom she described as “a strong leader for the Israeli people, a man prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of peace and security of his country.”
She also stressed the long friendship and bipartisan support for Israel, saying, “In Congress, we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel.”
But several congressional aides described the show of support for Netanyahu as stemming from the positive feelings members had for Israel, rather than the specific message he delivered.
“Just as when you see a family member who you think is making the wrong choice, you still love them,” one Democratic staffer said. “That doesn’t change the fact that over the past year we’ve had disagreements.”
He said members familiar with the sensitivities in Jerusalem and Netanyahu’s right-wing governing coalition, which doesn’t want to see the east Jerusalem project halted, “understand the predicament he’s in, but what he did to the vice president is unacceptable.”
Another Hill staffer said that many members were unmoved by the Jerusalem flowcharts and maps.
a straw man,” he said. “It’s trying to repeat a trick that worked once…
by making it a question about Jerusalem rather than negotiations.”
He added, “The point is, do you take the negotiations seriously or not?”
On Capitol Hill right now, he said, “there are people that have questions” about Netanyahu’s commitment to the peace process.
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