Netanyahu's defiance on deal is 'declaration of war'

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, wrapped up a rocky visit to Washington yesterday with a defiant speech to US Congress that appeared to dash any hopes of reviving stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.

In what one Israeli commentator said would be the "speech of his life", Mr Netanyahu set forth his vision of peace, saying that he was willing to make "painful compromises" that would involve giving up parts of the "ancestral Jewish homeland".

The address was received with rapturous approval from both houses of Congress, the audience rising to its feet more than two dozen times in just the first 15 minutes. But it was described by one Palestinian official as a "declaration of war", offering little new and rejecting all of the Palestinians' key demands.

Mr Netanyahu returned to old themes: he demanded Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, described the right of return for Palestinian refugees as a "fantasy" and vowed to keep Jerusalem undivided.

Nabil Shaath, a spokesman for the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Mr Netanyahu's speech was "a declaration of war against the Palestinians... and unfortunately, it received a standing ovation".

The hawkish Israeli premier also rejected negotiations with Hamas, the militant Islamist group that recently reconciled with the mainstream Fatah, the faction that dominates the Palestinian Authority, in a longed-for unity deal that many say is vital if there is to be any lasting peace deal for all Palestinians.

To the delight of his right-wing coalition, Mr Netanyahu struck a combative note on his trip, rejecting Barack Obama's call for peace negotiations to be based on the pre-1967 borders. It was the first time that a sitting US president had referred to the ceasefire lines so explicitly, and signalled an impending crisis in Israel's relations with Washington.

The Palestinians now seem certain to turn to the UN in September to seek recognition of Palestinian statehood, a move the US is almost certain to block.

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