Israeli leader stakes out positions before peace talks, drawing swift Palestinian rejection

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's prime minister demanded Sunday that any future Palestinian state be demilitarized and recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, as he staked out his starting position for new Mideast peace talks.

Benjamin Netanyahu said reaching a deal will be difficult but possible. The conditions he laid down, coupled with a swift Palestinian rejection, illustrated just how difficult the task will be for the U.S. to meet its goal of brokering peace within a year. Talks are set to begin in Washington next week.

"We want to surprise all of the critics and skeptics. But to do that we need a real partner on the Palestinian side," Netanyahu told his Cabinet Sunday. "If we discover that we have such a partner, we will be able to quickly reach a historic agreement between the two peoples."

In his first public comments since the White House announced the planned resumption of talks on Friday, Netanyahu gave the first signs of what has been an extremely vague vision for a final settlement.

He said any future Palestinian state would not be allowed to have an army, would have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and accept other Israeli security demands, he said, without elaborating.

He did not address what are considered the conflict's thorniest issues: borders, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinian refugees.

He will be negotiating with the Palestine Liberation Organization, which holds sway only in the West Bank, the territory squeezed between Israel and the Jordan River. The PLO wants a state in all of the West Bank, neighboring east Jerusalem and the seaside Gaza Strip on the other side of Israel.

Gaza is ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel.

In the past, Netanyahu has said Israel would have to maintain a security presence along the West Bank's border with Jordan to prevent arms smuggling, and that east Jerusalem, the sector of the holy city claimed by the Palestinians as their capital, must remain under Israeli control.

His Likud party is also a champion of the four-decade-old movement to settle Jews in the West Bank, which Israel captured along with east Jerusalem and Gaza in the 1967 Mideast war, though it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

"Achieving a peace agreement between us and the Palestinian Authority is difficult but possible," he said.

The Palestinians have long rejected Netanyahu's demands.

They say that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would threaten the status of Israel's Arab minority and undermine the rights of Palestinian refugees whose families lost homes during Israel's creation in 1948.

They also say a future Israeli presence in the West Bank would be unacceptable.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Netanyahu's comments were "dictation, not negotiation."

"If he wants negotiations, he knows that these conditions won't stand," Erekat said.

During nearly two decades of failed negotiations, previous Israeli governments have offered broad withdrawals from nearly all of the West Bank. But talks have bogged down over the extent of the withdrawal and the sensitive issues of refugees and Jerusalem.

Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who left office last year, has said he proposed a withdrawal from nearly all of the West Bank, offered to turn over parts of east Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty and agreed to a symbolic return of some Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel.

Olmert's talks with the Palestinians broke down, however, after Israel launched a war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in December 2008. Netanyahu was subsequently elected, and talks have been on hold since then.

Something close to the Olmert proposal — including a Palestinian presence in east Jerusalem and a near-complete withdrawal from the West Bank — is widely seen as the basis for a future settlement. But Netanyahu, who leads a coalition dominated by hard-line nationalistic and religious parties, has signaled he is not willing to go that far.

He pointedly insisted that there be no preconditions for him to rejoin the peace talks, and his aides have given no details about what concessions he is prepared to make, saying that is a matter for negotiations.

In a key test, an Israeli slowdown on settlement construction in the West Bank is set to expire next month, and some of the coalition's hawkish members have said the government's stability will be threatened if Israeli construction in the West Bank does not resume in full.

Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, said that if the slowdown ends, Israel "will have closed the door to negotiation."

The Western-backed Palestinian government in the West Bank resisted entering direct peace talks with Netanyahu for months, fearing they would not be productive.

It agreed under heavy American diplomatic pressure and assurances from the international community that a final peace settlement must end "the occupation which began in 1967."

With the gaps so wide, expectations are low all around. Israeli and Palestinian newspapers greeted news of the new talks with pessimism Sunday, and one leading Israeli newspaper, Maariv, buried its report on page 10.

Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, an analyst at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said the gaps on key issues are so wide "they have taken on a mythical status."

He said any breakthrough would require heavy involvement by President Barack Obama, and the best hope at this stage would be for an interim agreement that puts off a decision on the sensitive issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

Looming over the negotiations is the continued control of Gaza by Hamas militants. The Iranian-backed group, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, has condemned the negotiations, and it is unclear how any peace deal could be carried out as long as it rules one of the two areas claimed by the Palestinians.

Militant groups like Hamas have tried to sabotage past peace efforts by attacking Israeli targets. And in late 2000, the second Palestinian uprising broke out just as President Bill Clinton was making a final push for peace before leaving office.

But Gaza militants, skeptical about the prospects for success, appear unlikely to disrupt what has been a general period of calm since Israel ended its offensive in January 2009.

The Israeli military refused to say whether it had taken any special precaution, saying only it is "prepared for any eventuality."


Aisha Mohammed in Jerusalem contributed to this report.