Israel Building Freeze Terms Rejected by Palestinians

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set terms for the renewal of a West Bank settlement freeze that were swiftly rejected by the Palestinians, leaving the status of U.S.-brokered peace talks in limbo.

Netanyahu told parliament yesterday he was ready to convene his Cabinet and ask for a renewal of a freeze on settlement building if “the Palestinian leadership tells its people in an unequivocal manner that it recognizes Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.”

Mohammad Shtayyeh, a member of the Palestinian Authority negotiating team, said Netanyahu’s demand was “unacceptable.”

The comments come as the U.S. is trying to keep peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians alive after Israel’s 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank expired on Sept. 26. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will only return to talks if Israel reimposes the construction moratorium.

“There is no way that the Palestinian Authority is going to make this declaration,” said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. “The government of Israel is trying to educate the U.S. administration on why there is no basis for a productive peace process at this point.”

Palestinian Refugees

The Palestinians reject Israel’s demand that they recognize it as the state of the Jewish people on the grounds it undermines the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Israel says such recognition is necessary to ensure the Palestinians don’t make additional claims once a peace treaty has been signed.

Palestinian refusal to accept Israel as the Jewish homeland and their unwillingness to renounce future claims against it means “there is no chance in the coming years for a peace agreement,” Minister of Strategic Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, told Israel’s Army Radio today.

Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said that “the future states of Palestine and Israel will need to fully guarantee equality to all their citizens.”

The Arab League last week backed the Palestinian Authority’s position not to resume direct peace talks until Israel renews the freeze, and gave U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration more time to revive the peace effort.

‘Create Conditions’

“The parties must work constructively to create conditions for the negotiations to continue,” U.S. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said in an e-mail. “Both sides need to take steps if we are going to move forward.”

Israel had signalled last week that a compromise may be possible. “The U.S. has come back to Israel with a number of suggestions, incentives if you would, that enable the government to maybe pass a limited extension of two or three months,” Ambassador Michael Oren told the Washington Post.

Shtayyeh said Netanyahu was “adding additional complications” to the renewal of talks. “We hope that the international community will bring Israel into the talks without any conditionality,” he said.

Netanyahu faces opposition from most of his Cabinet to renewing the freeze. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who lives in a settlement and leads the second-largest party in the coalition, has said he will fight a renewal.

Citizenship Oath

The Cabinet, on Netanyahu’s initiative, on Oct. 10 approved a change to the country’s citizenship oath, adding words to emphasize the “Jewish and democratic” nature of the state, in what analysts said was a gesture to Lieberman and others.

Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party has in the past proposed that all Israelis, including Israeli Arabs, swear a loyalty oath.

Tal Nahum, Yisrael Beitenu spokesman, said the party had not yet decided if it would support a renewed freeze should the Palestinians meet Netanyahu’s conditions. “The party will give its opinion when it becomes relevant and is brought to a Cabinet and parliamentary decision,” Nahum said in a phone interview.

About 500,000 Jews have moved to the West Bank and east Jerusalem since Israel captured the territory in 1967.

The United Nations says that settlements are illegal, and the International Committee of the Red Cross says they breach the Fourth Geneva Convention governing actions on occupied territory. Obama has said the settlements aren’t legitimate.

International Convention

Israel says the settlements don’t fall under the convention because the territory wasn’t recognized as belonging to anyone before the 1967 war, in which Israel prevailed, and therefore isn’t occupied.

Israel and the Palestinians agreed last month to try and reach an agreement on the framework for a comprehensive peace accord within a year. All the issues at the core of the conflict would be on the table, including the borders of a future Palestinian state, security arrangements for Israel, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jerusalem.

Spyer said he expected more bargaining in the month before the Arab League meets again to discuss the peace process. “There will be a series of proposals and counterproposals,” he said.

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