A new Israeli settlement freeze? What's behind Netanyahu's offer.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered a new Israeli settlement freeze, as ally Obama eagerly seeks progress toward peace before US elections next month.

By , Correspondent

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    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the opening of the winter session in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Oct. 11.
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revived a previous offer Monday, saying he would support a new settlement freeze if Palestinians would recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

The offer is consistent with a demand Mr. Netanyahu made when he first endorsed a Palestinian state a year ago. But Israeli analysts and former diplomats disagree as to what the prime minister, who acknowledged that the offer had already been turned down in private negotiations with Palestinians, sought to achieve by raising the issue in parliament's opening day of winter session Monday.

Some see it as an effort to deflect Palestinian portrayals of Israel as the obstructionist party, especially with Netanyahu's ally President Obama eager to see the peace talks restarted before November elections. The prime minister may also be trying to reassure some of his constituents, who have felt he's betrayed them in the face of Palestinian demands.

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But Netanyahu's decision to raise recognition again now instead of leaving it for the final stages of talks has stoked fresh uncertainty about his sincerity in negotiating a two-state solution.

"[Netanyahu] knows it’s a non-starter,'' says Yossi Alpher, a former peace process adviser to the Israeli government and the co-editor of the opinion forum Bitterlemons.org. "[The Palestinians] are prepared to end the conflict, but for them to accept Israel as a Jewish state is for them to negate their whole narrative.''

What Palestinian recognition would mean

Israelis see Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish homeland as confirmation that their neighbors accept Israel's legitimacy. But it’s a taboo for the Palestinian leadership on several levels, particularly because recognition could be seen as giving up Palestinian refugees' claims to homes and property inside Israel that they lost in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

In addition, Palestinians consider recognizing Israel's Jewish character as compromising the rights of Israeli Arabs, a growing minority who make up 20 percent of Israel's population.

Netanyahu said Monday that such a move would build confidence and "open up a new horizon of hope and trust among broad sections of the Israeli public.''

While he said the recognition request is not a precondition for negotiations, Palestinians were quick to reiterate their rejection. A spokesman for Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, criticized Israel's demand as "a new obstacle.''

Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations under Netanyahu, said that the prime minister is responding to what he sees as Palestinians front-loading the peace process with divisive issues that should be part of the negotiations rather than a precondition.

"Israel is essentially saying that if we are going to abide by these new rules of putting the substance of the negotiations ahead of time, why can't Israel do the same thing?'' he said. "Either they will do it, or they are going to drop the notion that you have to have preconditions for negotiation.''

An attempt to shift blame?

Critics of Netanyahu have suggested that move is a tactic to shift the blame onto the Palestinians for the recent stall in negotiations. The Palestinians have refused to engage Israel in direct talks after Netanyahu allowed a 10-month moratorium on housing starts in the West Bank to expire.

"The agreements that Israel signed with Egypt and Jordan made no mention of those countries’ obligation to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jews,'' wrote columnist Shimon Shiffer, in the daily Yediot Ahronot newspaper.

"One can draw the simple conclusion that Netanyahu is searching for any possible trick to push the Palestinians into the position of being rejectionists, which most likely will isolate Israel, place it in a vortex of blame-laying by the international community and will cast it in the world as a racist country.

A spokesman for the prime minister rejected that interpretation, arguing that it is unfair that only Israel faces pressure for concessions. For negotiations to succeed, the both Israel and the Palestinians must show flexibility.

Netanyahu's mysterious maneuvers

Though the demand appears to be a deal-breaker, analyst Mr. Alpher said that it may be one of a series of gestures to members of his right-wing coalition ahead of new concessions by Netanyahu in the negotiations.

The prime minister's offer could be interpreted as the first public indication that he's mulling a new settlement freeze, adding to the mystery of his maneuvering. On Monday, he told members of his Likud party that the Jewish settlements in the West Bank are not Israel's highest interest.

Says Alpher, "It's very possible that even he doesn't know where he's going.''

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