- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a rapturous reception worthy of a rock star from lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle on Capitol Hill on Tuesday - a stark contrast to last week’s tense White House visit.

His speech to a joint session of Congress was repeatedly punctuated by sustained applause, laughter and more than two dozen standing ovations. It also received some high praise from bipartisan admirers.

“For someone who has listened to a lot of speeches I have to say you’ve made the all-star team,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, told Mr. Netanyahu at a press conference afterward.

During the address, Mr. Netanyahu told Congress he was willing to make “painful compromises” to achieve peace, but ruled out negotiating with the new Palestinian unity government unless it ditches its Islamist militant partner Hamas, which calls for the destruction of the state of Israel. Hamas is also on the U.S. terrorist list.

“Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by the Palestinian version of al Qaeda. That we will not do,” Mr. Netanyahu vowed.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party, which governs the West Bank, and Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, signed a peace pact this month that has put them on a collision course with Israel.

The prime minister also ruled out a key Palestinian demand that East Jerusalem be part of a future Palestinian state. Referring to the West Bank by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria, he rejected suggestions that Jewish settlers living there were foreign occupiers.

“This is the land of our forefathers,” he said.

Nabil Shaath, an aide to Mr. Abbas, said Mr. Netanyahu’s outline for peace was a “declaration of war against the Palestinians.”

President Obama sparked an angry response from Mr. Netanyahu last week when, in a major Middle East policy speech, the president said a Palestinian state must be drawn along borders that existed before the 1967 war, while allowing for mutually agreed land swaps.

Mr. Netanyahu called the 1967 borders “indefensible,” a word he repeated in his speech to Congress. The line won him a standing ovation.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Mr. Obama’s views were the “wrong-headed approach.”

“I am glad that there was such a discernible difference between the warm reaction in the joint session of Congress and the chilly reception from the administration,” Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, who was part of the escort committee for Mr. Netanyahu, told The Washington Times.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters the return to 1967 borders with swaps “is a well-known formula to all who have worked this issue for a generation.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the response to Mr. Netanyahu’s speech showed the “steadfast, bipartisan and genuinely enthusiastic support of the United States.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, summed up the mood in Congress.

“I think you heard today the resounding bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong and will continue,” he told Mr. Netanyahu.

Steven Clemons, founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, said of Mr. Netanyahu: “He is sort of like Frank Sinatra in New York, but he is Bibi Netanyahu in D.C. This is his town and you got that feeling up there.”

The bonhomie in Congress was briefly marred at one point by an anti-war protester. Lawmakers promptly drowned her out with another standing ovation for the prime minister.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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