Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Washington behind after tangling with President Barack Obama over Middle East peace efforts, to fly to the West Coast to promote a less contentious agenda: his country’s movies and technology.
The Israeli leader is scheduled to sign a trade agreement with California Governor Jerry Brown at Stanford University today and then visit the campus of Apple Inc., which last year bought Israel’s PrimeSense Ltd., a maker of motion-tracking chip technology, for $350 million.
Netanyahu, under pressure from Obama to push forward talks with the Palestinians, wrapped up two days of diplomatic activity in Washington by challenging Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to conclude a peace agreement that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state. An Abbas spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeina, rejected the proposal, declaring it a bid to sabotage negotiations.
“I am prepared to make a historic peace with our Palestinian neighbors,” Netanyahu said, addressing 14,000 delegates at the annual Washington conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Calling on Abbas to accept Israel’s Jewish nature, the Israeli leader said, “No excuses, no delays; it’s time.”
Netanyahu’s speech to Aipac, the biggest pro-Israel lobbying group, came a day after Obama pressed Netanyahu to make compromises. As an April 29 deadline looms on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s nine-month peace campaign, Kerry is pushing Abbas and Netanyahu to accept a framework that would guide further negotiations.
In Los Angeles, Netanyahu attended the premiere of a film aimed at attracting tourists to visit Israel. In “Israel: The Royal Tour,” which will be shown on U.S. public television, Netanyahu turns tour guide for travel journalist Peter Greenberg, exploring the country with him on foot, by bicycle and in a helicopter. Later today, he will rub shoulders with Hollywood stars such as Robert De Niro at a party hosted by Israeli-born film producer Arnon Milchan.
Obama, 52, who visited Netanyahu and Abbas on a Middle East tour a year ago, is inserting himself more directly into the peace talks as Kerry hits resistance from both sides. Abbas has been invited for his own White House meeting on March 17. A week later, Obama is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia, which has leverage over the Palestinians.
Rights Seen Jeopardized
Abbas has said he can’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state because that would jeopardize the rights of its 20 percent Arab minority and the claims of Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants to homes their families fled or were expelled from in fighting around Israel’s 1948 founding. Netanyahu yesterday called on the Palestinian president to “abandon the fantasy of flooding Israel with refugees.”
At their March 3 meeting in the Oval Office, Netanyahu, 64, told Obama he will “stand strong against criticism, against pressure, stand strong to secure the future of the one and only Jewish state.”
While he focused yesterday on Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state, Netanyahu has often raised other conditions for signing a peace agreement, including a requirement that the new Palestinian state be demilitarized with an Israeli army presence on its eastern border with Jordan. He has also said he doesn’t want to move any of the 350,000 West Bank settlers from their homes, a position Abbas rejects.
The Palestinians see the growth of Israel’s settler population as a threat to their dream of establishing a state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Israel captured all three territories in 1967 and withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
Kerry, who attended the White House meeting, also spoke at the Aipac conference, where he pledged U.S. military expertise and technology to protect Israel against any threats.
“We can deliver to Israel the security that Israel needs to make peace,” Kerry said.
Netanyahu told the Aipac audience that efforts to boycott Israel’s products over its settlement policies will fail because the “world wants Israeli technology,” citing the purchase of Israeli startups by Google Inc. (GOOG:US), Apple and Facebook Inc.
He also applauded actress Scarlett Johansson for refusing to renounce her endorsement of Israeli company SodaStream International Ltd. (SODA:US), which has a factory in the West Bank.
For Israel, the more pressing concern is Iran’s nuclear program, the other topic dominating the discussions during Netanyahu’s Washington visit. The U.S. and five other world powers have a six-month agreement with Iran, to end in July, during which the Islamic Republic is supposed to freeze some of its nuclear activities in exchange for relief from some sanctions.
Israel has expressed skepticism about the negotiations and warned against the U.S. getting played by the Iranians. Netanyahu may have limited ability to enlist the U.S. Congress in keeping pressure on Iran.
“Iran stands unabashedly on the wrong side of the moral divide,” Netanyahu said. “The greatest threat to our security is a nuclear-armed Iran.”
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