JERUSALEM – With a September deadline looming, Israel's prime minister turned to the Arabic media Thursday for the first time since taking office two years ago in an attempt to lure the Palestinians back to peace talks, saying "everything is on the table."
Benjamin Netanyahu's interview with the Al-Arabiya satellite channel reflects Israeli concerns over Palestinian plans to seek U.N. recognition of their independence this fall. But it also highlights Netanyahu's new strategy of engaging directly with the Arab public.
Netanyahu has fielded questions from Arabs before on YouTube and even made a recorded plea to Arab viewers to submit questions. But the face-to-face Al-Arabiya interview is his first of its kind. Netanyahu's office called the move "the beginning of a new era" and promised more such interviews in the near future.
The interview, which aired Thursday evening, comes as Israel is scrambling to counter the Palestinian U.N. initiative this fall. Israel fiercely opposes the move, saying a Palestinian state should be formed through negotiations and not by unilateral steps.
Peace negotiations have been stalled since 2008, and the Palestinians have refused to negotiate while Israel continues to build homes in Jewish settlements.
Although the vote will be largely symbolic, the Palestinians hope to isolate Israel and put pressure on it to make concessions.
In the interview, Netanyahu says he is willing to negotiate anywhere and with anyone who accepts Israel's right to exist.
"Everything is on the table. But we need to get to the table," Netanyahu said.
"I'm prepared to negotiate with President Abbas directly for peace between our two peoples right now. We can do it here in my home in Jerusalem, we can do it in Ramallah, we can do it anywhere," he said.
Netanyahu said he realized he would have to make "difficult compromises for peace," but he offered few new details about his plans.
The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem -- areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war -- as parts of a future independent state. Netanyahu has said he wants to keep parts of the West Bank, and he opposes any division of Jerusalem.
"You know anything that I say will be used -- not against me -- but against the process of genuine reform that Syrian people would like to see. We don't intervene in Syria but it does not mean we are not concerned. We'd like the peace and quiet on the Israeli-Syrian border to be maintained and I would like to ultimately, have that turned into a formal peace between Israel and Syria," Netanyahu said. "I think the people, the young people of Syria deserve a better future."
Netanyahu said he hopes the Arab Spring will result in democracies in the Arab world.
"If there's genuine democracy in the Arab world, in the Arab countries, then there will be genuine peace. Because a genuine democracy reflects the desires of the people, and most people Arabs, Jews, anyone they don't want their sons and daughters dying on battlefields."
Ofir Gendelman, Netanyahu's spokesman for the Arab media, said Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya was chosen as a conduit for Netanyahu's outreach because it is a professional station that reaches 40 million Arabs. He refused to discuss why Al-Jazeera, the top-rated Arab media outlet, was not selected. Al-Jazeera's coverage has been accused of stirring up anti-Israel sentiment on the Arab street.
"There are a lot of issues the prime minister wants to address," he said. "The goal of the interview is twofold: to convey the message that he wants to resume negotiations and express via the interview how important Arab public opinion is to him."
Israel's most pressing concern at the moment is what happens in September. No one knows exactly how the vote will unfold.
If that happens, the Palestinians could go to the General Assembly and seek recognition there as a nonmember observer state, a largely symbolic nod. Still, widespread support in the General Assembly would signal that a majority of countries support Palestinian statehood in the pre-1967 lines.
The Palestinians insist that their U.N. bid does not rule out a return to negotiations.
Palestinian leaders have called on their people to take to the streets in nonviolent protests in September and Israeli officials are concerned that these could spiral out of control and set off a new round of fighting.
Israeli Cabinet Minister Moshe Yaalon dismissed these concerns Thursday, telling foreign reporters that he "can't see any change on the ground after September."
He called the unilateral option one of the "balloons inflated in the last two years by those who thought we might be threatened."
Yaalon, a former military chief, also rejected the argument that the current status quo is untenable.
"The situation is not sustainable? It's sustainable. It's not going to be solved in the near future. We can live with it. We can survive with it," he said.