By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
JERUSALEM, May 18 -- Palestinian officials on Monday said they were disappointed that a round of U.S.-Israeli talks in Washington produced no clear progress on the removal of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank or other issues they feel are crucial to rejuvenating stalled peace negotiations.
After meeting with President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said he was ready to begin peace negotiations with the Palestinians "immediately." But he also reiterated positions that seem to restrict the scope of those talks -- namely that he would accept only a limited form of Palestinian self-government and that any talks would have to include Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a "Jewish state."
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the conditions seemed to undermine any negotiations before they even started.
"There is a difference between being a tough negotiator and a non-negotiator. What I heard today was a non-negotiator," said Erekat, who added that Palestinians had been looking for Monday's meeting to produce some sense of progress -- whether a statement from Netanyahu about the restriction of settlements or on the establishment of a Palestinian state.
"He says that he wants me to govern myself by myself. I have one simple question: How can I do that when roadblocks are suffocating us in towns and refugee camps? When the army makes incursions wherever they want? When the demolition of homes continues?" Erekat said.
Obama restated U.S. support for establishment of a Palestinian state -- something Netanyahu has opposed in the past, arguing that while the Palestinians should govern themselves, they should not have full state powers, such as the ability to raise an army, control airspace or make treaties.
Erekat said he was also cheered when Obama publicly noted what he regards as Israeli obligations to stop West Bank settlements and improve the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, which has been under an Israeli embargo for more than three years.
But Netanyahu addressed neither of those issues directly in his comments, and his advisers afterward focused on what they regard as a key strategic success -- agreement between Netanyahu and Obama on opposing Iran's development of nuclear weapons technology.
Officials in Tehran say their nuclear program is for domestic energy purposes, while Israel and the United States fear the program is masking an effort to develop nuclear weapons -- a development Netanyahu feels would pose a threat to Israel's existence.
The issue is at the core of Netanyahu's thinking about the region, and his advisers said that Monday's public comments show that Obama agrees with him. Netanyahu argues that Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia also feel threatened by Iran and, as a result, are open to closer cooperation with Israel.
"There is the beginning of a strategic convergence of the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government," said Dore Gold, a Netanyahu adviser and former ambassador to the United Nations. "Both recognize that there are real dangers that could undermine the security of both countries, in particular Iran."
Expectations for the Obama-Netanyahu meeting have been building since the Israeli prime minister took office in late March, heading a coalition opposed in key ways to U.S. policy in the region, particularly on the issue of Palestinian statehood.
While there was no obvious tension between the two leaders in their public comments, Obama pledged again Monday that the United States would be active in trying to push Palestinian statehood forward.
Israeli opposition politicians said they had hoped Netanyahu would use his first trip to Washington to make a gesture toward the views of Israel's chief ally and patron.
"The problem is that Netanyahu is not brave enough to take the right steps in this direction," out of concern about losing support from members of his right-wing coalition, said Yoel Hasson, a member of the Israeli parliament from the opposition Kadima party.