Peres backs Arab League peace initiative

President says no gap between Israel, US policies; confirms Netanyahu will honor previous agreements.

Peres and netanyahu discuss 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Peres and netanyahu discuss 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
In a message intended for US President Barack Obama, President Shimon Peres on Monday indicated that the Arab League peace plan could serve as a basis for moving the peace process forward. In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual conference, Peres stressed that Israel's leaders trusted the US president as he works toward peace, something Israel would pursue as it respected its previous commitments to the Palestinians. Peres was laying the groundwork for his meeting with the US president on Tuesday, the first official Israeli visit to the Obama White House, which will precede Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's own inaugural trip here by two weeks. Amid international criticism that Israel's new, predominantly right-wing government will block peace efforts and is on a collision course with the United States, Peres made the opposite point. Speaking to reporters after his speech, he also stressed that there's "no gap" between the US and Israeli governments. Yet Israel has emphasized the Iranian threat as the most pressing priority and has been hesitant to endorse the two-state solution for dealing with the Palestinians, even as the Obama administration has been stressing the importance of the peace process and the necessity of creating a Palestinian state. In a closed meeting with AIPAC's major donors on Sunday night, Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, reportedly said that having negotiations would make it easier to build a regional coalition to stop Iran. A White House spokesman could not immediately be reached to confirm the comments. On Monday, Peres stressed that Israel stood behind the US president and his goals. "Let me make it clear," he declared. "We trust the leadership of President Obama. We trust he will pave the way to both to a regional agreement and meaningful bilateral negotiations. It is a real change in the situation." Peres characterized the Arab League plan, which offers Israel full recognition in exchange for full withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and a solution for the Palestinian refugees, as "a serious U-turn." He said that even though Israel was not a party to its formulation and therefore didn't agree with everything it set out, "Israel respects the profound change. Israel hopes it will be translated into action, the sooner the better." His comments, delivered before a cheering audience, went further than any official response from the Netanyahu government in embracing the plan, which was first announced in 2002 and has been largely greeted over the years with Israeli skepticism. The Obama administration, however, has welcomed it as a sign of Arab seriousness in peacemaking, a stance the new American leadership is seeking to encourage in its quest for regional peace. Peres also said that "Palestinian people have the right to govern themselves," to some applause from the audience, which overall, greeted his speech warmly. He also defended Netanyahu, his one-time political opponent, as a leader who "wants to make history." He continued, "In our tradition, making history is making peace. I am sure that peace is his real and profound priority." He later said, to applause from the thousands of pro-Israel activists in attendance, "In pursuing peace, let's make no mistake: the present government of Israel shall respect commitments made by the previous governments of Israel." Though some in Israel have expressed concern about the direction of the Obama administration on Israeli-Palestinian policy, particularly that it might recklessly pressure Israel, Peres several times praised the American leader. Echoing Obama's rallying cries of "hope" and "change" throughout his address, Peres said, "You are young enough to offer hope to the world and great enough to bring it to life." He also backed Obama's language of outreach to the region, describing his inaugural call for "an outstretched hand instead of a clenched fist" as what was needed. At the same time, he harshly criticized Iran, one of the countries with which Obama is seeking dialogue. "The fanatic rulers of Iran are on the wrong side of history," Peres said. His speech was briefly disrupted by three protesters, including a young woman shouting, "What about the children you killed in Gaza?" and a man who yelled, "End the siege of Gaza!" Security guards hustled them outside and tried to cover their mouths so that people waiting to enter the convention hall wouldn't hear them. Inside the packed room, the audience rose in an extended standing ovation to drown out their shouts. Netanyahu, speaking to the convention late Monday night via satellite hook-up, was expected to say that a final peace agreement with the Palestinians would only be possible when they recognize Israel as the national home for the Jewish people. In addition, Netanyahu was expected to say that Israel would never compromise on it's security; that there could be a better future for both Palestinians and Israelis; and that the leaders of Israel, the Arab world, Europe and many other countries know that Iran must not be allowed to gain possession of nuclear weapons. A night earlier, opposition leader Tzipi Livni of Kadima spoke to AIPAC members in a closed meeting. According to prepared remarks put out after the session, she, too, stressed the need for peace, but explicitly called for a "two-state solution," a phrase that Netanyahu has been unwilling to articulate. "Time is not on our side," she warned. "The conflict risks turning from one that is national and resolvable to one that is religious and endless." She stressed, "I believe that embracing the vision of two states for two peoples - a vision that was recognized by the UN in 1947, and embraced by the United States - is not an Israeli concession but an Israeli interest. This is the only way to end the conflict." In beginning her speech, Livni noted that it was her first appearance in the US as head of the opposition in Israel. "Don't worry," she told them, "it is not a role I plan on getting used to!" But she added that when it came to the issue of Iran, "there is no opposition party in Israel. "We are all united in our understanding of the threat," Livni declared, "and we will work together with the free world to deny Iran the ability to threaten the region and the world with nuclear weapons or with terror." Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.