GAZA CITY// Unsubstantiated reports in the Israeli media yesterday said that Benjamin Netanyahu may propose an interim agreement with the Palestinians as an alternative to moribund Middle East peace talks.
The Israeli prime minister has not formally proposed the idea, though local media quoted anonymous officials saying it would offer a way past the current breakdown at the negotiating table. The most recent round of direct negotiations collapsed in September, three weeks after they started, following Israel's refusal to extend a partial moratorium on settlement construction.
The Israeli daily Hayom quoted one anonymous official as blaming the collapse of the talks on the Palestinians "and therefore we should examine the idea of a long-term interim arrangement".
The official said that "the only possibility is to go for an interim arrangement, on condition that it is a long-term one".
While details have yet to be put forward, reports said it could include establishing borders for a temporary Palestinian state. Then a new framework for negotiating the so-called final-status issues would be decided in subsequent talks.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said the plan seemed to resemble similar ones proposed by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister, and other politicians. Those plans outlined temporary borders anywhere from 45 per cent to as much as 60 per cent of the West Bank until final-status issues are resolved.
The plan has been met with scepticism by Palestinians.
Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian negotiator, called it "even worse than what we have been discussing already". No talks would be held unless Israel froze all settlement expansion, he said.
The timing of the reports have aroused suspicion, in part because of rising international condemnation of the country's settlement enterprise. Moreover, it comes as members of the Mideast peace quartet - the US, European Union, Russia and the UN - convened with Palestinian negotiators in Brussels. Mr Netanyahu reportedly declined to dispatch his primary peace negotiator, Isaac Molho, to the meeting because his Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erekat, refused to meet him directly.
Yoram Meital, director of Ben Gurion University's Herzog Centre for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy in Beersheva, Israel, told Bloomberg News that Mr Netanyahu was, in fact, "trying to buy time and defuse some of the criticism that has been coming in his direction".
"He seems to have recognized that the sit-and-do-nothing approach will ultimately hurt his government," he said.
On Monday, Mr Netanyahu, in unsubstantiated media reports, was said to have discussed the idea of giving the same legal recognition to so-called settlement outposts that his government gives to other settlements.
The international community considers all the country's settlements illegal under international law.
Majid Shihade, a professor of international studies at Birzeit University, said Mr Netanyahu's proposals were all yet another indication of the Israeli government's long-standing reluctance to hammer out a final peace deal with the Palestinians. "Now there have been no suicide bombings for quite some time and there is security. So what do they do? The Israelis find another excuse and another excuse, and so on," Mr Shihade said.
"It's not just Netanyahu - the Israeli leadership is not interested in peace."