Netanyahu offers deal on settlements, but no takers

By Sheera Frenkel

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 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 United States 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.