WASHINGTON — Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington determined to hold the line on Iran, but he also brought something new: an expansive vision of Middle East peace.
The Israeli prime minister remained firm, after meeting with President Obama on Monday, in insisting that any nuclear deal must remove Iran’s uranium enrichment program — an outcome U.S. officials say is unlikely — and vowed that Israel would defend its interests.
On Israeli-Palestinian peace, though, Netanyahu aimed to please his American hosts: He joined Secretary of State John Kerry for the first time in expressing hope that there would be a breakthrough soon and articulating an optimistic vision of the benefits peace will bring, one that not so long ago he might have ridiculed.
“I’m prepared to make a historic peace with our Palestinian neighbors, a peace that would end a century of conflict and bloodshed,” Netanyahu said in his speech Tuesday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference. “Peace would be good for us. Peace would be good for the Palestinians. But peace would also open up the possibility of establishing formal ties between Israel and leading countries in the Arab world.”
Netanyahu’s rhetorical flourishes on peace came after he landed in a political environment marked in recent weeks by tensions between the Obama administration and Israel and its American defenders over how to deal with Iran.
Netanyahu’s remarks also came on the heels of an interview published Sunday in which President Obama bluntly warned that Israel could face international isolation if an agreement with the Palestinians is not reached and urged Netanyahu to show leadership in advancing peace.
The particulars of the peace vision that Netanyahu articulated in his AIPAC address included cooperating with Israel’s Arab neighbors on sharing water, developing medical cures and launching business startups. It’s a vision similar to the “New Middle East” Shimon Peres predicted in the 1990s and that Netanyahu mercilessly mocked in the 1996 election in which he defeated Peres.
Netanyahu added his usual caveats: The Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and Israel must maintain a military presence along the West Bank-Jordan border. But for the first time since talks were renewed last July at Kerry’s behest, Netanyahu suggested that a breakthrough was possible.
“So as we work in the coming days, in the coming weeks, to forge a durable peace, I hope that the Palestinian leadership will stand with Israel and the United States on the right side of the moral divide, the side of peace, reconciliation and hope,” he said.
Netanyahu had to remind the AIPAC crowd to applaud: “You can clap — you want to encourage them to do that!”
The optimistic tone stood in contrast to Netanyahu’s posture in the Oval Office with President Obama before their meeting. After Obama’s opening remarks, Netanyahu shifted in his seat, leaned forward and let out an audible sigh.
He thanked and praised Obama, ran through his Iran demands and then got to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“We’ve learned from our history — Jewish history, but I think from general history — that the best way to guarantee peace is to be strong,” Netanyahu said. “And that’s what the people of Israel expect me to do –- to stand strong against criticism, against pressure, stand strong to secure the future of the one and only Jewish state.”
That clearly was a reference to an interview Obama had given Bloomberg News that was published the day before the leaders met. Obama insisted that Israel urgently needed to reach an agreement with the Palestinians and suggested that Netanyahu needed to rise to the occasion.
“I believe that Bibi is strong enough that if he decided this was the right thing to do for Israel, that he could do it,” Obama said. “If he does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach. And as I said before, it’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible.”
Netanyahu may have felt the need to defend himself in the Oval Office, but in fact, according to sources in the pro-Israel community, it was his intention to embrace aspects of the framework peace agreement Kerry hopes to unveil in coming weeks.
Indeed, Netanyahu and AIPAC officials consistently praised Kerry throughout the conference for his thorough approach to developing a framework proposal. In his speech to AIPAC, Netanyahu called Kerry “indomitable.”
Israel especially has appreciated Kerry for his sequencing: He has first thoroughly vetted his proposals, including on Jerusalem and on securing the West Bank, with Israel and is only now in close consultations with Palestinians. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is due to meet Obama on March 17.
Embracing Kerry’s initiative gives Netanyahu some room to hold fast to his positions on the Iran talks. The Obama administration has beaten back for now demands spearheaded by Netanyahu and AIPAC that the United States upgrade existing sanctions on Iran.
But Netanyahu’s bottom line did not change in the wake of his meeting with Obama: He continued to reserve Israel’s right to act as it sees fit unless the talks eliminate entirely Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium. Obama and other U.S. officials have suggested that Iran will likely emerge from a final agreement with a limited enrichment capacity.
“Unfortunately, the leading powers of the world are talking about leaving Iran with the capability to enrich uranium,” he told AIPAC. “I hope they don’t do that because that would be a grave error. It would leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power.”
He explained the danger, as he has in the past, by invoking the Holocaust.
“Letting the worst terrorist regime on the planet get atomic bombs would endanger everyone, and it certainly would endanger Israel since Iran openly calls for our destruction,” he said. “Seventy years ago, our people, the Jewish people, were left for dead. We came back to life. We will never be brought to the brink of extinction again. As prime minister of Israel, I will do whatever I must do to defend the Jewish state of Israel.”