Israel’s Prime Minister spelled out his opening position for the new round of Mideast peace talks set to begin next week, insisting on Sunday on key security conditions and saying an agreement would be “difficult but possible.”
Mr. Netanyahu said a future Palestinian state would have to be demilitarised, recognise Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and respect Israel’s vital security interests. Some of his demands have already been rejected by the Palestinians.
“We come to the talks with a genuine desire to reach a peace agreement between the two peoples, while protecting Israel’s national interests, chiefly security,” Mr. Netanyahu told his Cabinet.
His comments were his first since U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on Friday that the sides would resume direct talks at a summit in Washington next week.
“Achieving a peace agreement between us and the Palestinian Authority is difficult but possible,” he said.
“We are talking about a peace agreement between Israel and a demilitarized Palestinian state, and this state, if it is established at the end of the process... is meant to end the conflict and not to be a foundation for its continuation by other means,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
He did not elaborate on any additional security demands, but in the past he has said that Israel would have to maintain a presence along the West Bank’s border with Jordan to prevent arms smuggling. The Palestinians, who claim all of the West Bank as part of their future state, reject any Israeli presence.
In addition, he said, the Palestinians must recognise Israel as the state of the Jewish people just as Israel would recognise the Palestinian state as that of the Palestinian people.
The Palestinians recognise Israel’s right to exist, but refuse to take a stand on the nature of the country. They say that recognising Israel as the Jewish state could prejudice the rights of Israel’s Arab minority and compromise the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes vacated in the fighting around Israel’s establishment in 1948.
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.
The comments indicated just how much work lies ahead for President Barack Obama, who hopes to resolve one of the world’s most intractable conflicts within a year.
The Western-backed Palestinian government in the West Bank, wary of engaging with Mr. Netanyahu’s hard-line government, has resisted entering direct peace talks, which they fear won’t be productive. Friday’s announcement came after months of American diplomatic efforts to get the sides talking again.
The Palestinians want a commitment from Mr. Netanyahu that he will allow them to form a state that includes virtually all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Mr. Netanyahu has refused to signal whether he is prepared for a broad withdrawal from the West Bank, and has said that east Jerusalem must remain Israeli.
The new talks could also sharpen the differences in Mr. Netanyahu’s fractious ruling coalition. Some analysts have suggested they could potentially force the prime minister to change its makeup to exclude some of the more hard-line members in favour of moderates like his rivals from the opposition Kadima party.
In a key test, an Israeli slowdown on settlement construction in the West Bank is set to expire next month, and some of the coalition’s hawkish members have said the government’s stability will be threatened if Israeli construction in the West Bank does not resume in full.
“If you start negotiations, unconditional negotiations, one cannot accept a condition that the freeze should continue,” Cabinet Minister Uzi Landau of the hard-line Yisrael Beitenu said on Sunday.
Mr. Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, said that if the slowdown ends, Israel “will have closed the door to negotiation.”
In the West Bank, papers greeted the new talks with pessimism. “Direct talks destined for failure before being launched because of Israeli hardening on continuation of settlement building,” read a headline Sunday in the daily Al-Ayam, which is closely linked to the Palestinian government.
In Israel, the news of the renewal of peace talks was greeted with scant interest. One leading daily paper, Maariv, mentioned it on Sunday only on page 10.
One commentator, Nahum Barnea of the daily Yediot Ahronot, wrote that after 17 years of peace talks interspersed with violence Israelis had little optimism left.
“We’ve seen that movie. We’ve seen it again and again and again. It is hard to believe that this time it is going to have a happy end,” he wrote.