With Palestinian statehood bid looming, Israel offers concession to restart talks

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has reportedly agreed to the 1967 borders as a baseline for peace talks in exchange for Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, in Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, Monday, Aug. 1. Netanyahu has reportedly agreed to the 1967 borders as a baseline for peace talks.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly agreed to resume peace talks with the Palestinians using pre-1967 borders as a baseline in exchange for Palestinians agreeing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

The Israeli prime minister's acquiescence to a demand he has long rejected – most recently at the White House in May – appears to be an effort to head off a Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations in September.

The concession is part of a formula being floated in meetings with Israelis, Palestinians, the United States, European Union, and Russia in an attempt to secure a deal that would preclude a Palestinian statehood bid at the UN, the Jerusalem Post reports. As part of the deal, Palestinians would accept that the final goal of talks is two states: one Palestinian and one Jewish. That could be problematic for people on both sides: Some 20 percent of citizens in Israel are Arab, and roughly 20 percent of the 2.5 million people living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are Jewish.

Mr. Netanyahu reportedly expressed a willingness to resume border talks on this basis in a closed-door meeting of the Knesset's foreign affairs and defense committee yesterday, according to Al Jazeera. The proposal would be contingent, however, on Palestinians dropping their UN bid.

Palestinian Authority officials, who have expressed skepticism about the reported concession because Netanyahu has not announced it publicly nor contacted them directly, rejected the possibility of giving up their UN bid, however. They said any talk about negotiations was "valueless," the Jerusalem Post reports.

[Chief Palestinian negotiator Saab] Erekat said that reports that Netanyahu has accepted the agreement should be viewed as a publicity stunt.

“Why doesn’t Netanyahu declare with his own voice that he accepts the 1967 borders as the basis for a two-state solution?” Erekat asked. “Why doesn’t he announce a cessation of settlement construction?” Erekat accused Netanyahu of playing with words.

“Netanyahu’s office said that he’s prepared to discuss such a formula and not accept it, and there is a big difference between the two,” he said.

Agence France-Presse reports that Netanyahu acknowledged in an Israeli parliament committee meeting Monday that Israel had no ability to block the symbolic vote at the UN. But the concessions could ensure US goodwill and therefore a veto of Palestinian UN membership in the Security Council.

Meanwhile, Fatah official Nabil Shaath said Tuesday that a bid for UN membership would make negotiations with Israel more likely and more successful by putting the two on more equal footing at the negotiating table, Maan News Agency reports. Israeli attempts to head off the UN bid are futile because the Palestinian leadership is committed to the plan, Mr. Shaath said.

Tony Karon charges in Time that, because the proposed deal accepts the 1967 borders as just the starting point for talks rather than endorsing them as formal borders, little has actually changed about Netanyahu's position. There's also no mention of the settlement freeze demanded by the Palestinians, and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state remains a nonstarter for Palestinians.

So the new Israeli position, while tweaked to appear to be more in line with what the Obama Administration has been asking, may not be all that new, after all. Nor is it one that makes it any easier for Abbas to accept, unless he's essentially looking for an off-ramp from a confrontational diplomatic strategy that threatens his ties with Washington -- which may well be the case.

If not, and the UN vote goes ahead, Netanyahu's latest position will simply have been an attempt to shift the blame for intransigence back onto the Palestinians. Netanyahu and Abbas, it should be noted, have never really negotiated with one another; instead, both "negotiate," or jockey for position, with the US and the wider international community. And Netanyahu's new willingness to talk about borders, but only on his terms and if the Palestinians withdraw their UN bid, is simply his latest move in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian battle for international public opinion.

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