Hours before entering the White House for a meeting with President Barack Obama, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the podium at the General Assembly of Jewish federations to send a message to Obama, the Palestinians and the entire world.
Israel, according to Netanyahu, seeks an immediate resumption of peace talks. “Let’s move,” Netanyahu said. He went on to address the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas personally — urging him to “seize the moment to reach an historic agreement; let us begin talks immediately.”
Netanyahu’s message of peace, which was well received by the 3,000 participants of the General Assembly, was a dress rehearsal, said an Israeli official, to his meeting with Obama. Netanyahu, the official said, will stress in the Oval Office meeting his desire to enter talks with no preconditions — thus putting the onus on the Palestinian side that has so far refused to negotiate before a settlement freeze would be put in place.
The Israeli leader told Jewish communal leaders in his GA speech that his government went further than any other Israeli government in lifting roadblocks in the Palestinian territories, and in agreeing to restrain settlement activity. Never before, Netanyahu said had the Palestinians insisted on pre-conditions before agreeing to talk with Israel.
Further setting the tone for his meeting with Obama, the Israeli prime minister praised the American president and his administration — both for their strong opposition to the adoption of the Goldstone report by the United Nations and for their work to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
A few minutes into his speech, Netanyahu was disrupted by a single demonstrator within the crowd, who called out and tried to wave a sign repudiating Israeli policy in Gaza.
In his 40-minute keynote address, Netanyahu tried to reach out to the Jewish American crowd, promising that Israel will be open to all Jewish denominations. “Religious pluralism will always guide my policy,” Netanyahu said.
Stressing this issue is an important step in reaching out to U.S. Jews, since the ultra-Orthodox partners in Netanyahu’s coalition have declined to accept the legitimacy of Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.