Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured Italian help in his campaign to peel away European support for recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations in September.
“I don’t think this in any way would contribute to bringing peace,” Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said at a press conference in Rome today after a two-hour meeting with the Israeli leader at the Villa Madama government compound.
Netanyahu has been making repeated visits to Europe as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas prepares a formal statehood proposal to be presented at this year’s annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in three months. He said statehood should be the result of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the UN effort would only complicate the Middle East peace process.
The two leaders and accompanying Cabinet ministers from both countries also signed a series of eight agreements aimed at boosting Italian-Israeli cooperation in tourism, education and economic development. The press conference took place in a white tent in which Berlusconi had a wall-size painting of nymphs surrounding a male harpist by the 18th century Italian artist Andrea Appiani brought in as a backdrop.
Abbas has said he will seek UN recognition for a new Palestinian state if peace negotiations with Israel remain stalemated. The two sides most recently held formal talks last September. Abbas has said he won’t return to the table unless Israel freezes Jewish settlement in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, steps Netanyahu has rejected.
Netanyahu, 61, thanked Berlusconi for supporting his stance on Palestinian statehood, saying peace “will only come from negotiations. It cannot be imposed by one side, and not by one- sided UN resolutions.” He called the Italian prime minister “a great friend of Israel.”
The Israeli prime minister has made similar trips since April to the U.K., France, Germany and the Czech Republic and made the same point about the UN during a five-day visit to Washington last month. He plans to visit Romania and Bulgaria next month, according to a senior aide.
“We don’t believe a unilateral solution can help peace,” Berlusconi said. “I believe peace can only be reached with a common effort, that is, with negotiations.”
Netanyahu said the issue of building West Bank settlements can also be decided only in direct talks and not as a precondition for negotiations. As he declared in Washington, Netanyahu said Palestinians must accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state for peace talks to be successful.
“It would resolve the whole problem,” he said. “The root of the problem is the refusal to recognize a Jewish state.”
Netanyahu also discussed Iran with Berlusconi, 74, asserting the Islamic republic will only give up its nuclear program if it faces a “credible military option.”
Netanyahu yesterday met Mayor Giovanni Alemanno at Rome’s city hall, where a poster of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was hanging outside. Shalit has been held by Palestinian militants for five years since being captured from a tank outside the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu said he hoped other European cities would join efforts to demand Shalit’s release from Hamas, the Palestinian organization that controls Gaza and is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the European Union and the U.S.
Israel’s foreign ministry has instructed diplomats abroad to explain that a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood would undermine all internationally accepted frameworks for peace and violate existing agreements, according to a telegram sent to embassies and obtained by Bloomberg.
Netanyahu has also said that he won’t return to negotiations if Abbas moves ahead on his commitment to form a new government supported by Hamas, the Islamic group that controls the Gaza Strip and is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and European Union.
Abbas, whose Fatah movement rules the West Bank, signed a reconciliation agreement in Cairo last month, agreeing to assemble an interim unity government with Hamas and hold new elections.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe visited Netanyahu and Abbas earlier this month to propose that they hold a meeting in Paris aimed at resurrecting peace negotiations and avoid a showdown at the UN. Abbas was sympathetic to the idea while Netanyahu agreed to study the plan and consult with the U.S. before responding, Juppe said.
Netanyahu rejected Obama’s proposal in Washington to use boundaries from before the 1967 Six-Day War combined with exchanges of territory as a starting point for peace negotiations, calling them “indefensible.” The 1967 lines define the boundaries of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, which were all captured in the war that year from Jordan, Egypt and Syria.
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