Netanyahu makes "hollow" peace proposal

AP and Ahram Online, Monday 3 Jan 2011

Israeli prime minister Netanyahu claimed he wanted non-stop negotiations with the Palestinians but made no indication of answering any of their demands

Israel's Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem 26 December 2010. (Reuters)

Israel's prime minister challenged the Palestinian president to sit down with him for nonstop negotiations until they nail down a peace accord, but the Palestinians say deadlocked talks cannot budge without an Israeli settlement freeze.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to move beyond his settlement freeze demand and instead work with him issues deemed by the Israelis necessary to reach a final peace deal.

Netanyahu said he was ready to sit with Abbas,  for "continuous direct one-on-one negotiations until white smoke is wafting," an allusion to the Vatican's custom for announcing a new pope.

"If Abu Mazen agrees to my proposal of directly discussing all the core issues, we will know very quickly if we can reach an agreement," he said.

The Israeli leader did not spell out details, but his approach is opposed to the Palestinian approach of demanding a settlement freeze and general agreement on borders before talks resume.

Abbas reacted coolly to Netanyahu's offer and reiterated his demand for a halt to Israel's illegal building in the West Bank and Jerusalem, Palestinian land invaded by Israel in 1967.

If building there stops, "we can reach an agreement not in six months, but in two months," Abbas told The Associated Press from Brazil.

US-brokered talks broke down just three weeks after they began in early September with the expiration of Israeli curbs on settlement construction in the West Bank.

The fate of the colonies is critical to any future deal.

Observers questioned how the two sides might reach an agreement on equally complicated and sweeping issues that divide the two sides, including final borders between Israel and Palestine, competing claims to the holy city of Jerusalem and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees and their right of return.

Netanyahu grudgingly accepted the principle of a Palestinian right to statehood only two years ago, past months' diplomatic difficulties have deepened the Palestinians' distrust. Appearing to despair of restarting talks, they have embarked on a parallel track of seeking recognition by world governments for a Palestinian state.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat complained that during the three weeks of direct talks last September, Netanyahu made no proposals for future arrangements between Israel and Palestine. "It is time for him to present his vision of peace, two states based on the 1967 lines, with minor, mutually agreed land swaps," Erekat said.

Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, offered the Palestinians almost all of the West Bank and only parts of east Jerusalem. The Palestinians did not accept the offer, and negotiations collapsed in late 2008.

Netanyahu did not give an indication of providing the minimum provided by Olmert.

Eitan Bentsur, a former director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry and onetime peace negotiator, said direct talks might give the negotiating process a fresh start, but were unlikely to bridge all the deep differences at this stage. "Very soon they will face the core issues that have to be overcome," he said.

Yossi Beilin, a dovish former Israeli negotiator, said Netanyahu does not have a peace plan, so "such an invitation (to nonstop talks) is hollow." Beilin told the AP that Netanyahu "is very, very far from the demands of the most pragmatic Palestinian leadership ever." A broad withdrawal offer would likely cause Netanyahu's government to collapse, though he could seek the support of more liberal parties.

The main opposition party, Kadima, is also the largest in parliament, and its leaders have said they would prop up Netanyahu if he made genuine peace moves.

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