Netanyahu offers deal on settlements, but no takers

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday made his first public offer to renew a moratorium on settlement construction, a move that Palestinians disparaged but that showed some willingness to allow the U.S.-launched peace talks to move forward.

Netanyahu offered a short-term freeze on new construction if Palestinians agree formally to accept Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinians swiftly rejected Netanyahu's deal, saying the Israeli leader was "playing games."

The offer appeared to be the opening gambit in what could be weeks of haggling over the terms for extending the moratorium, which expired on Sept. 26. It followed Sunday's Israeli cabinet decision to require all non-Jewish immigrants to declare their loyalty to Israel.

Israeli news media have speculated that the U.S. is promising incentives, including security guarantees, if Netanyahu reinstates some form of the settlement freeze.

The daily newspaper Maariv reported that Netanyahu was discussing the U.S. incentives with his cabinet, and is likely to propose further compromises to the Palestinians in the coming weeks.

"If the Palestinian leadership would say unequivocally to its people that it recognizes Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, I will be willing to convene my government and ask for an additional suspension," Netanyahu told the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, Monday.

"As the Palestinians expect that we will recognize a Palestinian state as their national homeland, we are entitled to expect that they will recognize Israel as our national homeland."

Netanyahu's speech prompted jeers from Arab lawmakers, as well as right-wing religious Jewish lawmakers, including some who called the proposal "preposterous."

Jerusalem's main religious radio station called for the immediate ouster of the prime minister and the dissolution of his largely right-wing coalition, while Arabic radio called for the Palestinians to call off peace talks "once and for all."

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat slammed the proposal, saying: "I don't see a relevance between his obligations under international law and him trying to define the nature of Israel. I hope he will stop playing these games and will start the peace process by stopping settlements."

Netanyahu's move followed Sunday's Israeli Cabinet approval of a bill that would require all new, non-Jewish immigrants to pledge allegiance to the "Jewish and democratic" state of Israel to receive citizenship.

The leaders of the more than a million Arabs living in Israel said the bill discriminates against minority religious groups within Israel and contravenes the rights of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to land they consider their ancestral right as well.

Netanyahu alluded to the bill during his speech Monday, saying that Israel is the "perfect example" of a democracy that treats its citizens equally. "Jews and non-Jews alike enjoy equal rights under the law."

Though recognition of Israel as a Jewish state never has been one of the core issues in peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Netanyahu has raised it as one of his key demands in any peace deal.

Few within Israel feel that a long-term compromise can be reached, and that any freeze that Netanyahu chooses to reinstate will be a short-term solution meant to appease the Obama administration through November's midterm elections.

The U.S. has led the drive for a compromise over Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Israel won from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war. President Barack Obama relaunched direct talks between the two parties on Sept. 2, but three weeks later, the end of the moratorium threatened to halt the process.

Israel had instituted a 10-month partial freeze on new construction in the West Bank that expired on Sept. 26, triggering a boom in building across the settlements. Erekat called that a "slap in the face" and said negotiations couldn't be conducted while Israel "attempted a land grab" on areas earmarked for a future Palestinian state.

Netanyahu hasn't commented on the hundreds of building projects that have been initiated by the 300,000 Jewish settlers who live among 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas won the support of a number of Arab League leaders to halt the talks until Israel agrees to a construction moratorium — and the Arab League put off any decision for a month.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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