Israeli Prime Minister Promotes Plan for Demilitarized Palestinian State

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after meeting the leaders of France and Italy on Wednesday, said his bid for a demilitarized Palestinian state is gaining international ground and is the only solution for Mideast peace.

"The idea of a demilitarized state will in course become accepted. If it is not accepted, there will not be an agreement," he told reporters after meeting in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "It cannot be that there is a Palestinian state and the struggle will continue within it."

Sarkozy agreed that a "future Palestinian state cannot in any way constitute a threat to the security of Israel." In Rome earlier Wednesday, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi endorsed Netanyahu's plan for a future demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel as a "Jewish state."

The issue of Jewish settlements emerged as a thorn in Israel's discussions with the United States and France on Netanyahu's first European tour since taking office.

The U.S. says Israel must halt all Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank.

Sarkozy stood firm in Wednesday's talks, urging Netanyahu to immediately order "a total freeze of settlement activity," according to a statement from the French president's office.

Sarkozy, who calls himself a friend of Israel but whose country has traditionally good relations with much of the Arab world, urged faster action toward creating a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu pledged that no new settlements would be built, but suggested existing colonies would be allowed to develop.

The Israeli leader also was meant to meet in Paris with Washington's top Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, but Israel's government postponed the meeting because it wanted more time to straighten out the diverging views on settlements.

Netanyahu said he postponed it to allow both countries to work on "a series of details" and that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak would instead meet with Mitchell next week in Washington.

A senior official traveling with Netanyahu said Wednesday that Israel sought "more professional work" before the meeting. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the U.S.-Israel discussions were confidential, said settlement construction was one of those issues. Israel insists "natural growth" of existing Jewish communities in the West Bank must be allowed.
Berlusconi, who gave Netanyahu a warm welcome in Rome earlier Wednesday, spoke only of the need for Israel "to send signals" on stopping settlement.

"It was a very warm welcome," an upbeat Netanyahu briefed Israel-based journalists traveling with him after the Berlusconi meeting. "It would be hard to find a better friend."

Sarkozy, meanwhile, offered to send international peacekeepers to secure a Mideast peace deal. But Netanyahu brushed off the offer. "We're not looking for an international force," he said, adding that the only place such a force is needed is on the Gaza-Egypt border.

Sarkozy and Netanyahu expressed shared concerns about Iran, whose president has called for Israel's destruction and whose nuclear activities worry the United States and its allies. Sarkozy stressed in the talks that "the prospect of a nuclear Iran is unacceptable."

Sarkozy and his government strongly have denounced the violent crackdown on opposition demonstrations in Iran by protesters who believe that the June 12 presidential elections were fraudulent.

Netanyahu praised Sarkozy's efforts toward securing the release of Israeli-French soldier Sgt. Gilad Schalit, seized by Hamas-allied militants in Gaza in 2006.