Israel’s prime minister has demanded that any future Palestinian state be demilitarised and recognise Israel as the Jewish homeland, as he set out his starting position for new Middle East peace talks this week.
Benjamin Netanyahu said reaching a deal would be difficult but possible – and the conditions he laid down, coupled with a swift Palestinian rejection, illustrated just how difficult the task would be.
The talks will begin in Washington with the US trying to meet its goal of brokering peace within a year.
“We want to surprise all of the critics and sceptics. But to do that we need a real partner on the Palestinian side,” Mr Netanyahu told his Cabinet yesterday.
“If we discover that we have such a partner, we will be able to quickly reach a historic agreement between the two peoples.”
In his first public comments since the White House announced the planned resumption of talks on Friday, Mr Netanyahu gave the first signs of what has been an extremely vague vision for a final settlement.
He said any future Palestinian state would not be allowed to have an army, would have to recognise Israel as a Jewish state and accept other Israeli security demands.
He did not address what are considered the conflict’s thorniest issues: borders, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinian refugees.
He will be negotiating with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which holds sway only in the West Bank, the territory squeezed between Israel and the Jordan River. The PLO wants a state in all of the West Bank, neighbouring east Jerusalem and the seaside Gaza Strip on the other side of Israel.
Gaza is ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel.
In the past Mr Netanyahu has said Israel would have to maintain a security presence along the West Bank’s border with Jordan to prevent arms smuggling, and that east Jerusalem, the sector of the holy city claimed by the Palestinians as their capital, must remain under Israeli control.
His Likud party is also a champion of the four-decade-old movement to settle Jews in the West Bank, which Israel captured along with east Jerusalem and Gaza in the 1967 six-day war, though it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
“Achieving a peace agreement between us and the Palestinian Authority is difficult but possible,” he said.
But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Mr Netanyahu’s comments were “dictation, not negotiation”.
The Palestinians say recognising Israel as a Jewish state would threaten the status of its Arab minority and undermine the rights of Palestinian refugees whose families lost homes during Israel’s creation in 1948.
They also say a future Israeli presence in the West Bank would be unacceptable.
“If he wants negotiations, he knows that these conditions won’t stand,” Mr Erekat said.
During nearly two decades of failed negotiations, previous Israeli governments have offered broad withdrawals from nearly all of the West Bank. But talks have bogged down over the extent of the withdrawal and the sensitive issues of refugees and Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who left office last year, said he proposed a withdrawal from nearly all of the West Bank, offered to turn over parts of east Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty and agreed to a symbolic return of some Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel.
But his talks with the Palestinians broke down after Israel launched a war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in December 2008. Mr Netanyahu was subsequently elected and talks have been on hold since then.
Something close to the Olmert proposal – including a Palestinian presence in east Jerusalem and a near-complete withdrawal from the West Bank – is widely seen as the basis for a future settlement.
But Mr Netanyahu, who leads a coalition dominated by hardline nationalistic and religious parties, has signalled he is not willing to go that far.