Netanyahu: peace will be difficult

Israeli prime minister sets conditions already rejected by Palestinians.

Powered by automated translation

TEL AVIV //Israel's prime minister said yesterday that an agreement with the Palestinians would be "difficult but possible", and insisted on conditions that Palestinians have rejected in the past. Benjamin Netanyahu's first comments on direct talks since they were announced on Friday were a reminder of the challenges both parties face in the negotiations, which will start on September 2 in Washington.

Mr Netanyahu repeated his demand that Palestinians recognise Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Palestinians have rejected this in the past, claiming that to do so would prejudice the rights of Israel's Palestinian minority and undermine the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes they lost in the war that led to the establishment of Israel in 1948. The Israeli premier also insisted that any Palestinian state would have to be demilitarised and respect Israel's vital security interests. He has said before that this meant Israel would retain a military presence on the West Bank's border with Jordan.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Mr Netanyahu's comments were "dictation, not negotiation". "If he wants negotiations, he knows that these conditions won't stand," Mr Erekat said. Speaking at the start of his cabinet's weekly meeting, Mr Netanyahu said: "Achieving a peace agreement between us and the Palestinian Authority is difficult, but possible ? we want to surprise all the critics and sceptics. But to do that, we need a true partner on the Palestinian side."

Conceding that the direct talks were being launched amid general pessimism about their potential for success among both among Israelis and Palestinians, Mr Netanyahu said: "I know there is deep scepticism. After 17 years have passed since the Oslo process, it's possible to understand why this scepticism exists." The prime minister, however, ignored in his comments a key obstacle that may threaten the negotiations - the possible increase of Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, which the Palestinians want as part of their future state.

It appears unlikely that Israel will extend a 10-month partial settlement freeze that is due to expire on September 26. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has insisted for months that he will not take part in direct talks unless there is a complete halt to the building. Mr Erekat told Israeli radio over the weekend that if Mr Netanyahu "decides to continue the settlements on September 26, we are very sorry - negotiations cannot continue". The administration of Barack Obama, the US president, and the quartet of Middle East peace mediators - the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia - refrained in their statements on Friday from directly demanding that Israel extend the construction halt. Israeli commentators said yesterday that Mr Netanyahu was likely to implement a compromise solution by stepping up construction only in the larger settlement blocs that Israel plans to keep under any peace agreement, while ceasing expansion beyond those areas. Israeli analysts said that such a compromise, if accepted by all parties, would be a victory not only for Mr Netanyahu, who has tried to keep his predominantly pro-settler coalition intact by insisting that building will continue after the freeze ends, but also for settler leaders who have lobbied against another construction delay. Gershon Mesika, one of those leaders, said: "I am not even considering the possibility that construction will not be renewed with full force. The freeze was an accident during Netanyahu's term. I don't believe that the prime minister will renew this move that contradicts everything that he had committed to during the elections." But some left-wing Israeli politicians warned yesterday that stepped-up construction threatens the success of the talks. Haim Oron, head of the opposition Meretz movement, said: "Without the continuation of a total freeze on building and a readiness to withdraw to the international borders and an end to offering the Palestinians a caricature of a state, it will be a waste of everybody's time." The direct talks, the first in 20 months, are set to begin on September 2 with a timetable of an agreement within a year. While the opening summit's location has not yet been disclosed, The Washington Post speculated that US officials are looking for a venue where the parties can bargain without intrusion. The sites under consideration, the newspaper said, include the White Oak plantation in Florida and several retreats in Virginia. Following the summit, most of the talks in coming months are likely to take place in Jerusalem, Israeli media reported. Meanwhile, King Abdullah II of Jordan arrived to Saudi Arabia yesterday and performed the Umra ahead of a scheduled meeting with King Abdullah to discuss the upcoming talks. The Jordanian monarch, along with the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, has been invited by Mr Obama to attend the start of the talks next week in the US capital.