Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before a joint meeting of Congress today had all trappings of a state of the union address by a U.S. president with sky-high approval ratings.
Speaking to a packed House chamber with Speaker of the House John Boehner and Vice President Joe Biden over his shoulders, Netanyahu was interrupted at least 53 times by applause, including at least 29 standing ovations.
To put those numbers in perspective, 29 standing ovations eclipse the total that President Obama received at the State of the Union this year. Obama, in a speech that lasted much longer than Netanyahu’s, garnered 79 applause interruptions, but his remarks were met by only 25 standing ovations.
One of Netanyahu’s biggest applause lines was aimed directly at President Obama.
“Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967,” Netanyahu said, prompting a big standing ovation.
Later the prime minister added: “Israel under 1967 lines would be only nine miles wide. So much for strategic depth. So it’s therefore vital — absolutely vital — that a Palestinian state be fully demilitarized, and it’s vital — absolutely vital — that Israel maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River.”
As Netanyahu himself pointed out, the President has not called on Israel to return to the exact 1967 borders. The President has said that a peace agreement should be “based on 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”
Nevertheless, Netanyahu speech – and the thunderous bi-partisan response – was a clear challenge to the idea of using the 1967 boundaries – with or without “swaps” — as a basis for a peace deal.
Netanyahu also got big ovations with hard-line statements on two other perennial sticking points to Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements: No right of return for Palestinian refugees, and “Jerusalem will never again be divided. Israel must remain the united Capital of Israel.”
Netanyahu arguably got a warmer reception than President Obama received during his last state of the union and certainly a warmer reception than he’d receive at the Knesset. When the speech was over, he lingered for a while at the podium as it seemed he didn’t want to leave.
Still, Netanyahu was interrupted one time by a female protestor, from Code Pink, who stood up in the Gallery and shouted: “No More Occupation. End Israeli War Crimes.”
Her protest was met with boos, and quickly overwhelmed by applause for Netanyahu. Once the woman was removed from the Gallery, Netanyahu joked about how the protest would not be possible in Iran or Libya.
“You know, I take it as a badge of honor, and so should you, that in our free societies you can now protest,” Netanyahu said. “You can’t have these protests in the farcical parliaments in Tehran or in Tripoli. This is real democracy.”
Netanyahu also reaffirmed the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and commended America for the killing of Osama bin Laden earlier this month.
“Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel,” Netanyahu said. “We stand together to defend democracy. We stand together to advance peace. We stand together to fight terrorism. Congratulations, America. Congratulations, Mr. President: You got bin Laden. Good riddance!”
Netanyahu warned that “the Middle East stands at a fateful crossroads,” noting that while some countries continue to deny Israel’s right to exist, he is publically committed to a two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
“We must find a way to forge a lasting peace with the Palestinians,” Netanyahu began. “Two years ago, I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples — a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state. I’m willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historic peace. As the leader of Israel, it’s my responsibility to lead my people to peace.”
“No distortion of history could deny the 4,000-year-old bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land,” he explained. “But there is another truth. The Palestinians share this small land with us. We seek a peace in which they’ll be neither Israel’s subjects nor its citizens. They should enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people living in their own state. They should enjoy a prosperous economy, where their creativity and initiative can flourish.”
The prime minister criticized Palestinian leaders for being “unwilling to accept a Palestinian state if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it” and called on President Mahmoud Abbas to publicly recognize Israel.
“Our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state; it’s always been about the existence of the Jewish state,” Netanyahu said. “President Abbas must do what I have done…I stood before my people and I said, “I will accept a Palestinian state.”
“It’s time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say, “I will accept a Jewish state,” Netanyahu continued. “Those six words will change history. They’ll make it clear to the Palestinians that this conflict must come to an end; that they’re not building a Palestinian state to continue the conflict with Israel, but to end it, and those six words will convince the people of Israel that they have a true partner for peace.”