Netanyahu draws fire for Palestinian state conditions

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conditional acceptance of a Palestinian state came under fire on Monday, with the Arab world and Palestinians saying it killed chances of a peace deal.

The United States saw the address as an important step forward and the European Union as a step in the right direction. Israeli observers said it amounted to empty rhetoric.

After months of pressure from main ally the US, the premier broke with his right-wing Likud party’s ideology on Sunday and endorsed the two-state solution, the cornerstone of international Middle East peacemaking efforts for years.

But he set a slew of conditions: Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; full demilitarisation of the future state that will not control its air space or have the ability to forge military pacts; and “ironclad” security guarantees for Israel.

“Then we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarised Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state,” Netanyahu said in a speech laying out the peace policies of his 11-week-old government.

The Palestinians blasted the address, saying the Israeli premier was torpedoing all hopes of a peace deal.

“He spoke of a demilitarised state, but he also stripped it of all sovereignty attributes, transforming it into a protectorate of isolated cantons,” said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior aide to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

“Netanyahu is defying the world.
The international community should reply by pressure to isolate Netanyahu and his policies and force Israel to submit to the peace process,” he said.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state in a final deal—something they have long refused to do—“scuppers the possibility for peace”.

“No one will support this appeal in Egypt or elsewhere,” state news agency Mena quoted the leader of one of only two Arab countries to have signed peace treaties with Israel as saying.

State media of Israel’s arch-foe Syria also blasted Netanyahu, saying he “torpedoed” peace efforts.

A Palestinian recognition of Israel as a homeland of the Jewish people would mean effectively giving up on the right of return, a cherished dream among the 4,6-million Palestinian refugees scattered around the Middle East.

‘Same old babble’
The Palestinians also slammed Netanyahu for not heeding the US call to halt all settlement activity, something they have demanded in order to relaunch negotiations that the two sides revived at a US conference in November 2007, but that were suspended during the Gaza war earlier this year.

Observers in Israel were no less sparing. The Ynet news website said the speech amounted to “the same old babble”, while Ayoob Kara, an MP with Netanyahu’s Likud party, termed it “a pain killer to stop international pressure”.

While agreeing to a Palestinian state may have been difficult for the leader of the right-wing Likud party—one daily said he “vomited the words”—the move was mostly aimed at pleasing Israel’s main ally, they said.

“Sometime in the future we will engage in negotiations with the Palestinians without pre-conditions, as long as they agree to our pre-conditions. Later we’ll see what comes out of it,” is how Ynet qualified the 30-minute address.

The mass-selling Yediot Aharonot said “Netanyahu’s speech was meant for one pair of ears ... the ears of [US President] Barack Obama”.

Obama’s administration has vowed vigorously to pursue the hobbled Middle East peace process as part of a changed approach to the region, and has repeatedly called on Israel to stop settlements and accept a Palestinian state.

The blunt talk from its main ally has raised fears inside the Jewish state that Washington may ease its support as it tries to improve its relations with the Muslim world.

The White House welcomed Netanyahu’s speech as an “important step forward”, while the European Union said it was “a step in the right direction”.

On the domestic side, Netanyahu drew criticism both from within his hawkish coalition, where many felt he went too far, and from the left, which considered he didn’t go far enough.—Sapa-AFP