Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress, May 2011: key extracts

Published:30 May 2011
Briefing Number 286

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Summary:   This Briefing provides key extracts from the speech of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the US Congress, delivered on 24 May 2011. We also describe the Palestinian rejection of his speech.  Netanyahu highlights:

- how Israel needs to share the land and build a viable and independent state for the Palestinians

- why Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state is the key to future peace

- his vision for the future borders of Palestine and the future of the refugees

- his vision for the future borders of Israel, and the settlements

- why Jerusalem must remain united under Israeli control 

- how Arabs in Israel already enjoy the democratic rights which Arabs in much of the rest of the Middle East are fighting for in the so-called ‘Arab Spring’

Key message: Israel wants and needs peace.  It is simply not true that Israel wants all the territory, or that Israel does not wish to compromise.  This speech could not have been given by a right-of-centre Israeli politician ten years ago, and indicates how far the centre-ground in Israeli politics has moved.   People who preach to the Israelis that it is vital to create a two-state solution are “preaching to the converted”. What they really need to do is honestly recognise the obstacles within Palestinian society, and in the Arab world, to creating such a two-state solution, and propose strategies for addressing those obstacles.

Mr Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress

On 24 May 2011 Mr Netanyahu made a long-awaited speech to the US Congress.  It came at a crucial time for international diplomacy.  Here are extracts, taken from the transcript of the speech available on the website of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office ( Some Israeli politicians objected to aspects of his speech. Meanwhile, according to Ha’aretz newspaper (26 May 2011), the Prime Minister’s approval rating among the general Israeli public “soared” following the speech.  

We need to share the land and build a viable and independent Palestinian state......

“We must find a way to forge a lasting peace with the Palestinians. Two years ago, I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples: a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state. [He is referring to his speech at Bar-Ilan University, in June 2009 – Beyond Images]

I am willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historic peace.  As the leader of Israel, it is my responsibility to lead my people to peace.

This is not easy for me.  I recognise that in a genuine peace, we will be required to give up parts of the ancestral Jewish homeland.  In Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers.  We are not the British in India; we are not the Belgians in the Congo.

This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God, where David set out to confront Goliath, and where Isaiah saw a vision of eternal peace.  No distortion of history can deny the four thousand year old bond, between the Jewish people and the Jewish land.

But there is another truth: the Palestinians share this small land with us.  We seek a peace in which they will be neither Israel’s subjects nor its citizens. They should enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people in their own state.   They should enjoy a prosperous economy, where their creativity and initiative can flourish.....”

The Palestinian leadership must say publicly: “I will accept a Jewish state....”

“Why has peace eluded us? Because all six Prime Ministers since the signing of the Oslo peace accords [Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, Sharon and Olmert, and then a second term for Netanyahu himself – Beyond Images], agreed to establish a Palestinian state. Myself included.  So why has peace not been achieved?  Because so far, the Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state, if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it.

You see, our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state. It has always been about the existence of the Jewish state. This is what this conflict is about.  In 1947, the United Nations voted to partition the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state.  The Jews said yes.  The Palestinians said no.  In recent years, the Palestinians have twice refused generous offers by Israeli Prime Ministers, to establish a Palestinian state on virtually all the territory won by Israel in the Six Day War (see Beyond Images Briefing 21: “Camp David and Taba: What did Israel offer?” – 14 May 2003; Beyond Images Briefing 225: “2008: Israel offers to pull out of 93% of the West Bank plus give 7% more land – Palestinians say no” – 5 December 2008)

They were simply unwilling to end the conflict.  And I regret to say this: they continue to educate their children to hate.  They continue to name public squares after terrorists.  And worst of all, they continue to perpetuate the fantasy that Israel will one day be flooded by the descendants of the Palestinian refugees.

My friends, this must come to an end. President Abbas must do what I have done. I stood before my people, and I told you it wasn’t easy for me, and I said: “I will accept a Palestinian state”.  It is time for Mr Abbas to stand before his people and say “I will accept a Jewish state....”

These six words will change history.  They will make clear to the Palestinians that this conflict must come to an end.  That they are not building a state to continue the conflict with Israel, but to end it.  They will convince the people of Israel that they have a true partner for peace.  With such a partner, the people of Israel will be prepared to make a far-reaching compromise. I will be prepared to make a far-reaching compromise....     
.... If Mr Abbas can make peace with the Jewish state, I promise that Israel will not be the last country to welcome a Palestinian state as a new member of the United Nations.  It will be the first to do so....”   

The future borders of Palestine, and Palestinian refugees

“We recognise that a Palestinian state must be big enough to be viable, independent and prosperous.  President Obama rightly referred to Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, just as he referred to the future Palestinian state as the homeland of the Palestinian people.  Jews from around the world have a right to immigrate to the one and only Jewish state.  Palestinians from around the world should have a right to immigrate, if they so choose, to a Palestinian state. That means that the Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved outside the borders of Israel...”

The future of Israel’s settlements....

The vast majority of the 650,000 Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines reside in neighbourhoods and suburbs of Jerusalem and Greater Tel Aviv.  These areas are densely populated but geographically quite small.  Under any realistic peace agreement, these areas, as well as other places of critical strategic and national importance, will be incorporated into the final borders of Israel. The status of the settlements will be decided only in negotiations.  But we must also be honest.  So I am saying today something that should be said publicly by all those who are serious about peace. In any real peace agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders [This is one of the first times that Prime Minister Netanyahu has acknowledged this expressly and it prompted an outcry among many elements of the Israeli right and the settlement movement – Beyond Images]. The precise delineation of these borders must be negotiated.  We will be generous on the size of a future Palestinian state.  But, as President Obama said, the border will be different than the one that existed on 4 June 1967.  Israel will not return to the indefensible lines of 1967...”     

Keeping Jerusalem united, with freedom of worship....

“..... Only a democratic Israel has protected freedom of worship for all faiths in the city.  Throughout the millennial history of the Jewish capital, the only time that Jews, Christians and Muslims could worship freely, could have unfettered access to their holy sites, has been during Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.  Jerusalem must never again be divided.   Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel.  I know that this is a difficult issue for Palestinians, but I believe that with creativity and goodwill a solution can be found.....”

Arab democratic rights in Israel, and the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings

“We in Israel have a free press, independent courts, an open economy, and raucous parliamentary debates..... Courageous Arab protestors are now struggling to secure these very same rights for their peoples, for their societies. We’re proud that over one million Arab citizens of Israel have been enjoying these rights for decades.  Of the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, only Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy real democratic rights.   I want you to stop for a second and think about that. Of those 300 million Arabs, less than one-half of one-percent are truly free, and they’re all citizens of Israel. [This is not to say that the Arabs of Israel do not have legitimate grievances – of course they do, as has been recognised by successive Israeli presidents and governments – Beyond Images]

.... Israel fully supports the desire of Arab peoples in our region to live freely.  We long for the day when Israel will be one of many real democracies in the Middle East.....I believe that a Middle East that is genuinely democratic will be a Middle East that is truly at peace.....”

Reactions to the speech from the Palestinians

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas said that the speech contained “nothing that we can build on....” (BBC News report, 25 May 2011)
The former chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that the speech proved that Israel “cannot be a partner for peace in the region” (Same source)

Sami abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas, the partner with Fatah under the Palestinian unity agreement, said that it was an “arrogant speech” which “denies Palestinian rights” and the only response is “the end of all negotiation with Israel....” (same source)

Some related Beyond Images Briefings

Briefing 274: “Jewish settlements: complex realities behind the headlines...”
(17 December 2010)

Briefing 272: “Recognising Israel as a Jewish state? Fresh rejection by the Palestinian moderates....” (11 December 2010)                                

Briefing 271: “Israelis are materialistic and cynical, and don’t care about peace...” – response by Michael Oren (14 October 2010)
Briefing 268: “Benjamin Netanyahu as peace builder: his speech at the Washington talks, September 2010” (28 September 2010)