Netanyahu bends on statehood but not settlements

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave ground on Sunday by conditionally accepting a US goal of a Palestinian state, but stopped short of a full settlement halt, setting the stage for friction with Washington.

Netanyahu seemed to harbour hopes that his comments on statehood would persuade US President Barack Obama to ignore settlement building in the occupied West Bank and not pursue a freeze that could bring down Israel’s right-leaning coalition.

The Israeli leader had not publicly endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state, an objective Obama reaffirmed in a June 4 address to Muslims.

The White House said Netanyahu’s remarks were an ”important step forward”.

In his speech, Netanyahu spoke for the first time of a Palestinian state but conditioned its establishment on Israel receiving in advance international guarantees the new nation would be demilitarised.

Palestinian officials did not rule that out, saying after Netanyahu spoke that the issue would need to be settled in peace negotiations.

Israeli political scientist Eitan Gilboa said Netanyahu’s statehood remarks could narrow a rare rift between Israel and the United States, its main ally.

”If [Obama] looks at the glass as half-full, this should be sufficient. But if he is looking for confrontation with Israel, he would say the glass if half-empty,” Gilboa said.

Before Netanyahu’s policy speech, American officials had made clear that Obama, seeking to mend US relations with Muslims, would not back down over settlements.

Netanyahu said in his speech that Israel would not build new settlements on Palestinian land but added that settlers in the occupied West Bank should be allowed to lead ”normal lives”.

Netanyahu has said he will allow construction in existing settlements to meet what Israel calls ”natural growth”.

Citing Netanyahu’s reluctance to rein in settlements, a senior European diplomat said of his speech: ”It’s goodwill and good words but I don’t think it’s going to appease the Americans.

”It doesn’t change anything in practice,” the diplomat added, noting that a two-state solution had been accepted by Netanyahu’s predecessors but went nowhere. ”He’s trying to gain time.”

Daniel Ben-Simon, a lawmaker of Israel’s centre-left Labour Party, said Netanyahu’s public endorsement of Palestinian statehood was a ”giant step” but added: ”He will need to show the world that he means what he says.”

The YESHA council, an umbrella group for settlers, said it was disappointed with Netanyahu’s conditional endorsement of a Palestinian state. It interpreted his remarks on settlements as a green light to continue West Bank settlement activity.

While calling for a renewal of peace talks, Netanyahu made no offer to negotiate territorial issues. He declared Jerusalem would remain united as Israel’s capital, drawing criticism from Palestinians who want to establish their capital in the city.

Another condition set by Netanyahu — Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state — appeared to be a non-starter.

Palestinians fear such recognition would destroy chances for a return of Palestinian refugees to areas now inside Israel from which they fled or were forced to flee during the 1948 war that led to its creation.

Netanyahu said in the speech, repeating long-standing Israeli policy, that Palestinian refugees should be resettled outside Israel. Israeli leaders have said in the past the refugees could find a new home in a future Palestine. – Reuters

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