Netanyahu cool to Arab land-swap initiative

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that Israel and the Palestinians could not achieve a peace deal based on land swaps alone and insisted that the most important thing is for Palestinians to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state.

“You saw what happened when we left the Gaza Strip. We evacuated the last settlers, and what did we get? Missiles,” he said, referring to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of soldiers and settlers from the Palestinian coastal territory in 2005.

Netanyahu seemed to offer a cool response to remarks made Monday in Washington by members of an Arab League delegation, including Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jasim al-Thani, who suggested that the Arab states would support a limited, mutually agreeable exchange between Israel and the Palestinians of lands that fall outside the pre-1967 borders.

“The root of the conflict is not territorial,” Netanyahu said in a meeting with Israeli Foreign Ministry officials Wednesday, as recorded by a participant. “The Palestinian lack of will to recognize Israel as the national state of the Jewish people is the root of the conflict.”

The Qatari prime minister’s remarks have drawn praise from U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who has been shuttling around the region to gauge whether peace talks between Israel, the Palestinians and the broader Arab world can be restarted.

Although there is still a long way to go, Kerry said Tuesday, “I don’t think you can underestimate the significance of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Arab Emirates, the Egyptians, the Jordanians and others coming to the table and saying, ‘We are prepared to make peace now in 2013.’ ”

U.S. diplomats have long assumed that a redrawing of borders beyond the strict 1967 lines would be an inevitable part of a final two-state solution, to accommodate the presence of large, suburban-style Israeli settlement blocs erected inside the West Bank. In exchange, the new Palestinian state would be given other lands as compensation.

In 2002, the Arab League offered recognition of Israel in exchange for a complete Israeli withdraw from Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their capital. So the statements by the Arab leadership that land swaps were acceptable are seen by some as a step forward.

On Tuesday, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the government’s top negotiator with the Palestinians, commended the Arab League statements as a positive step that could push the parties toward the table.

Israeli opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich told Israel Radio on Wednesday that Netanyahu should act like a “responsible adult” and endorse the Qatari-led initiative, according to the Times of Israel Web site.

Nimer Hammad, a political adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said the Israelis should welcome the new and improved Arab League initiative. “This is why I hope that from the Israeli side, they state what steps they will come with. After what was announced in Washington, we want them to say exactly what will come from this announcement,” he said.

In his address at the Foreign Ministry, Netanyahu said, “Until the Palestinians recognize our right to exist as a national state — no matter what the borders — and until they declare that the conflict is over, there will not be peace.”

Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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