KUWAIT CITY – Arab leaders said Wednesday they will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state, blaming it for a lack of progress in the Mideast peace process.
The announcement by the Arab League was a rejection of a key demand of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a boost to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the faltering negotiations.
Netanyahu believes there can be no peace with the Palestinians without recognition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. The Palestinians oppose this, saying it harms the rights of Palestinian refugees displaced from what is now Israel, as well as those of Israel's large Arab minority.
The statement, at the end of a two-day League summit in Kuwait, also rejected what it described as the continuation of Jewish settlement building in the West Bank and the "Judaization" of Jerusalem. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, captured territories claimed by the Palestinians, and settlement construction has continued throughout the negotiations.
"We hold Israel entirely responsible for the lack of progress in the peace process and continuing tension in the Middle East," the communique said. "We express our absolute and decisive rejection to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state."
It said the League rejects what it said is the "the continuation of settlements, Judaization of Jerusalem, attacks on its Muslim and Christian shrines and changing its demographics and geography."
Wednesday's announcement set the stage for Abbas to take a tough line in talks later in the day with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Jordan.
Kerry arrived in Jordan on Wednesday in hopes of jump-starting the foundering peace talks. He is meeting with King Abdullah II before a working dinner with Abbas. A State Department spokeswoman said Kerry also would talk with Netanyahu in the next few days.
In Kuwait, Abbas delivered scathing criticism of Israel in an address to the summit late on Tuesday, saying it was staging a "criminal offensive" to step up settlement building in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
"It is carrying out demolitions (of Palestinian homes), arrests, siege and strangling the Palestinian economy as a prelude to imposing a final settlement to the Palestinian issue that conforms with Israeli conditions and requirements," he said. He also accused Israel of deliberately trying to foil U.S. efforts to reach an agreement.
"And that is not all, it has come up with new conditions that had never been heard before like recognizing it as a Jewish state, something that we reject to even discuss," he said.
In Israel, a senior official said Abbas threatened to "torpedo the peace process" and paraded "rejectionism as a virtue."
"By reiterating his adversarial maximalist position, Abbas is undermining President (Barack) Obama's vision of peace and torpedoing Secretary Kerry's efforts to move the process forward," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
After a nearly five-year break, Israel and the Palestinians relaunched peace talks last July, agreeing to talk for nine months.
But the current round, brokered by Kerry, has faced daunting challenges as both sides spar over the drawing of future borders, the status of Palestinian refugees, security arrangements and Israel's demand that it be recognized as a Jewish state.
After months of deadlock, Kerry has given up hopes of brokering a deal and is scrambling to persuade the sides to agree to extend talks beyond his original April deadline.
The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip -- territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war -- for a future state. They have demanded that a future border with Israel be based on the pre-1967 lines, allowing small changes through negotiated land swaps.
Netanyahu has refused to accept the 1967 lines as the basis for talks and says he will never relinquish east Jerusalem -- home to the city's most sensitive holy sites.