JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is stepping up the message he's trying to sell to the Obama administration: Israel is ready to resume peace talks with the Palestinians immediately. But the new premier in town - unlike his predecessor - does not see the two-state solution as the answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mr. Netanyahu's aids emphasize that he has not ruled out such a solution, but he will not endorse that formula, which was the basis of the Olso Accords Israel signed with the PLO in 1993.
This mixed message has immediately been met with mixed reactions. Palestinian leaders, as well as officials in the Obama administration, have made it clear that they see no other way forward, and that the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel must be the ultimate goal of peace talks.
Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday that Israel "has to work for a two-state solution ... not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts, and allow Palestinians freedom of movement." He made the remarks at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful pro-Israel lobby in the US.
"The political track means that we are prepared to resume peace negotiations without any delay and without any preconditions – the sooner the better," Netanyahu said Monday in an address via satellite to the AIPAC meeting. Netanyahu said that he wanted to see progress on three tracks: political, security, and economic.
His words seemed intended as a sign that he was not seeking peace solely through developing better economic relations with the Palestinian Authority, which seemed to be the crux of his message when he entered office last month.
"But there are two provisos that I think have to be said at this point," Netanyahu added in his address. "First, peace will not come without security. If we abandon security, we’ll have neither security nor peace. So I want to be very clear – we shall never compromise on Israel’s security. Second, for a final peace settlement to be achieved, the Palestinians must recognize Israel as the Jewish state. They must recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people."
This has become a catchphrase of Netanyahu's new cabinet, and is interpreted by many as a demand that Palestinians give up their demand for the "right of return" to areas they left in 1948, when Israel was created.
In reaction to Netanyahu's speech, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat suggested that without a commitment to past agreements, it would be difficult to envision progress.
"Netanyahu must explicitly endorse the establishment of an independent, viable, and sovereign Palestinian state, which remains the cornerstone of the two-state solution. Negotiations for their own sake, without a clearly defined end goal, are no substitute for a just and lasting peace,” Dr. Erekat said.
Netanyahu is due to visit Washington in two weeks, and Obama administration officials have been hoping to get Israel's policy in line with Washington's before then.
Netanyahu will also be visiting Egypt next week to meet with President Hosni Mubarak. Relations between Israel and Egypt have been tense since Netanyahu's cabinet, which includes Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister, took office. Mr. Lieberman has been told that he is unwelcome in Egypt following insulting language he used in reference to Mr. Mubarak last year.
"Netanyahu is trying to buy time and probably the Palestinians will help him to buy time, because their unity talks are stalling," says Gideon Rahat, an expert in Israeli politics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
"If Netanyahu says tomorrow he supports the two-state solution, what will change? Hamas and Fatah are still divided and so they can't move forward," Mr. Rahat explains. "This is more about a stance, not about real solutions. But obviously, it's important for the Americans and their position in the region. [Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert] was ready for a two-state solution, but I don't think Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority can deliver whatever solutions exist in theory."
"When the Palestinains will be ready for their part, and Netanyahu will say no, then he will be in trouble," says Rahat.