By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 15, 2009
JERUSALEM, June 14 -- Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Sunday that he is willing to support the creation of a Palestinian state, for the first time making a commitment that the United States, Europe and the Arab nations have pushed for since he took office.
But in a prime-time address delivered at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, he attached a weighty list of conditions dictated by his personal beliefs and by the need to satisfy his right-leaning coalition in the Israeli parliament: The Palestinian state would have to be demilitarized, with international guarantees that it remain so; it would have to cede control of its airspace to Israel; and it could be created only if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland.
President Obama welcomed Netanyahu's speech as an "important step forward" and in a statement endorsed both key Israeli and Palestinian concerns. "The President is committed to two states, a Jewish state of Israel and an independent Palestine, in the historic homeland of both peoples," the statement said. "He believes this solution can and must ensure both Israel's security and the fulfillment of the Palestinians' legitimate aspirations for a viable state, and he welcomes Prime Minister Netanyahu's endorsement of that goal."
But the prime minister's address left major points of contention unresolved, including Obama's call in a speech in Cairo this month for a freeze on Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
In his remarks, Netanyahu did not commit to a freeze and instead shifted the discussion to what he views as the core issue -- long-standing Arab rejection of the idea of a Jewish national home in "the land of our forefathers."
"The root of the conflict was, and remains, the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own," he said in a speech that evoked biblical history and the perceived threat from Iran's development of nuclear technology, among other things.
"A fundamental prerequisite for ending the conflict is a public, binding and unequivocal Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people," Netanyahu said. "If we receive this guarantee regarding demilitarization and Israel's security needs, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, then we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state."
The main points in Netanyahu's address are not new. He has made similar comments in several public speeches since taking office. But in connecting them, as he did Sunday, with the creation of a Palestinian state, he has taken a step toward the U.S. position without compromising the basic principles on which he has based his political career.
Netanyahu's remarks were sharply condemned by Palestinian officials, who said the prime minister had undermined the peace process by attaching so many conditions to Palestinian statehood and drawing a hard line on other issues.
In his 40-minute address, Netanyahu rejected the idea of resettling any Palestinian refugees inside Israel and insisted that Jerusalem would remain under the full control of Israel instead of becoming a joint capital -- issues that the Palestinians say should be negotiated.
The Palestinians -- and the Arab states broadly -- were also hoping that he would announce a freeze on settlements, something that past Israeli governments have promised. The West Bank, occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, is home to nearly 300,000 Jewish settlers.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that although Obama had attempted in Cairo to mold a new future for the Middle East, Netanyahu was replaying history.
"He is in total defiance of Obama's speech. He wants people to believe he said Palestinian state," Erekat said. "What he said was that Palestinians left in cantons on the West Bank can have a flag and a song."
Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, he added, would slight the Muslim, Christian and other Arabs who make up about 20 percent of Israel's population and would prejudge resolution of the refugee issue.
"Our obligation is to recognize the state of Israel," Erekat said. "Israel can call itself whatever it wants to call itself."
Officials from the Islamist Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, said the speech showed that Palestinians will not win concessions from Israel through negotiations.
The group maintains an armed wing that fires rockets into Israeli territory and attacks Israeli military patrols along the Gaza-Israel border.
In his speech, Netanyahu said the prospect of Hamas taking over the West Bank was one reason Israel must attach security conditions to the creation of a Palestinian state. He also said that, ultimately, the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would have to extend its control to Gaza and "defeat" Hamas.
Netanyahu's advisers and party supporters said he had shown willingness to deliver a "secure peace" that allows Palestinians full self-governance -- and has put the onus on the Palestinians to prove they are serious.
"The right in Israel has the confidence to move toward peace," said Ron Dermer, a strategic adviser to Netanyahu.
By couching Palestinian statehood in terms of a broad acceptance of Israel's Jewish identity, Netanyahu is also likely to keep the support of his right-leaning parliamentary coalition, many of whose key members urged him to avoid supporting a Palestinian state altogether.
"Netanyahu is truly in a very tough position, with what seems to be pressure on him from all over the world" and a coalition expecting him to stick to principle, said Gideon Ariel, a key member of Netanyahu's Likud party.