Israeli prime minister offers conditional settlements freeze
JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu offered on Monday to extend a freeze on building in West Bank settlements if the Palestinian leadership declares that it recognizes Israel as the Jewish state. The offer was promptly rejected by the Palestinians
Peace talks launched early last month have been effectively suspended since a 10-month moratorium on building in the settlements expired on Sept. 26. The Palestinians have said they will not resume talks without a full halt to Israeli settlement building. So far, Netanyahu has resisted heavy pressure from the Obama administration to extend the moratorium, and his offer on Monday was the first public signal of flexibility on the issue.
"If the Palestinian leadership will say unequivocally to its people that it recognizes Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, I will be prepared to convene my cabinet and request an additional suspension of building for a limited period of time," Netanyahu said in a speech to parliament.
"Just as the Palestinians expect us to recognize the Palestinian state as their nation-state, we can expect that they recognize the Jewish state as our nation-state," Netanyahu said, adding that his demand was not a condition for negotiations.
"Undoubtedly such a step by the Palestinian Authority would be a confidence-building measure that will open a new horizon of hope as well as trust among broad parts of the Israeli public, which in light of events of the last decade have lost faith in the desire of the Palestinians to end the conflict," he said.
Netanyahu said that he had made his offer "in quiet ways" last month, but it had been rejected.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said that "there is no connection" between halting construction and the demand for recognition of Israel as the Jewish state.
"Settlement activities are illegal, and in order to resume negotiations there has to be a total cessation of settlement activities," Abu Rudeineh said in a telephone interview. "There are mutual letters of recognition between the PLO and Israel. What he is talking about, we have nothing to do with it."
The Palestine Liberation Organization formally recognized Israel in an exchange of letters before the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords. In its letter, the PLO said that it "recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security." In Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan there is no recognition of Israel as the Jewish state.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said that Netanyahu was making an "unacceptable connection" between "Israel's obligation under international law to stop settlement activity, and trying to define the nature of your country on the basis of religious beliefs."
"The whole international community holds him responsible for the collapse of the peace process," Erekat said. "When he was given the chance to choose between settlements and peace, he chose settlements. I hope he will stop settlements if he wants to revive the peace process."
Palestinian leaders have argued that their recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would undermine the claims of Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes in Israel and would call into question the rights of Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 percent of Israel's population.
On Sunday, Netanyahu angered Israeli Arab leaders when his cabinet approved the submission of a bill to parliament that would require new citizens to pledge allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state."
Some observers said the move appeared to be an attempt by Netanyahu to appease rightist partners in his coalition in preparation for possible concessions on the settlement freeze.
Netanyahu said that Washington has "made various proposals" in its effort to keep the negotiations alive and that "we are considering them seriously," but he did not elaborate. According to U.S. and Israeli officials, the Obama administration has offered a package of security assurances and promises of military hardware in exchange for a 60-day extension of the moratorium.
State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley did not respond directly to Netanyahu's proposal, saying "both sides need to take steps if we are to see the necessary conditions for negotiations to continue."
Greenberg is a special correspondent. Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.