Policy shift as Netanyahu backs two-state solution


ISRAELI PRIME minister Binyamin Netanyahu last night endorsed the two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.

His comments, in a much-anticipated policy speech at Tel Aviv’s Bar Ilan University, marked a significant policy shift for Mr Netanyahu who, since becoming prime minister earlier this year, had only hinted at implicit recognition for Palestinian statehood.

However, he made clear that Israel’s endorsement of a Palestinian state was conditional on such a state being demilitarised and on the Palestinians recognising Israel as a Jewish state.

Right–wing elements, both inside and outside the governing Israeli coalition, were highly critical, accusing the prime minister of carrying out a significant U-turn.

However, commentators predicted that the coalition would be able to weather the storm.

The speech was billed as Israel’s response to US president Barack Obama’s speech to the Muslim world, delivered earlier this month in Cairo.

Although Mr Netanyahu endorsed Palestinian statehood, there was no compromise on the other major policy disagreement between Jerusalem and Washington: the question of West Bank settlement construction.

The prime minister reiterated his call on Palestinians to resume peace talks immediately, but he made clear that Israel’s endorsement of the two-state solution was conditional.

“If we receive this guarantee for demilitarisation and the security arrangements required by Israel, and if the Palestinians recognise Israel as the nation of the Jewish people, we will be prepared for a true peace agreement [and] to reach a solution of a demilitarised Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state,” Mr Netanyahu said.

He said the solution of the Palestinian refugee problem must be “outside Israel”, and made it clear that the Palestinian Authority must defeat Hamas Islamists who control Gaza and reject peace with Israel.

Mr Netanyahu said he embraced President Obama’s vision for Middle East peace,adding that he was willing to meet any Arab leader anywhere.

“I turn to Arab leaders: let’s make peace, I am ready,” he said. “I am willing to go to Damascus, Riyadh and Beirut – to meet anytime, anywhere.”

On the question of Jerusalem, one of the most contentious final status issues, Mr Netanyahu insisted the city would remain Israel’s undivided capital, even though the Palestinians seek Arab east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

In response the White House said: “The president welcomes the important step forward in prime minister Netanyahu’s speech.”

“The president is committed to two states, a Jewish state of Israel and an independent Palestine, in the historic homeland of both peoples.”

Reaction within Mr Netanyahu’s own Likud Party was mixed.

Most Likud politicians praised the prime minister for taking action to preserve Israel’s friendly ties with Washington. However, Likud member of the Knesset parliament Danny Danon, on the right of the party, accused Mr Netanyahu of “giving in to American pressure”. Members of the right-wing Jewish Homeland Party threatened to reconsider their membership of the coalition in the light of the “dangerous ramifications” of the speech.

Knesset member Arieh Eldad, of the opposition National Union Party, accused Mr Netanyahu of violating his own promises and said the nationalist camp could no longer support his policies.

Members of the opposition centrist Kadima Party praised the speech as a step in the right direction, noting it was Mr Netanyahu’s refusal to endorse a two-state solution that led to the breakdown of talks on forming a national unity government after the elections in February.

There was criticism from the left. Haim Oron, leader of the left-wing opposition Meretz, described the speech as “too little, too late”.

“The array of reservations that Netanyahu put forth, including the stateless-state condition and his continued support of the settlements, will create difficulties for purposeful negotiations,” he said.

Ahmed Tibi, an Arab opposition Knesset member, said: “Netanyahu’s mountain turned into a molehill”, describing the speech as a “public relations ploy”.

Palestinian reaction was also critical. Nabil Abu Radeinah, spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, said: “Netanyahu’s speech was a right-wing speech that destroyed the basis for negotiations when it talked of a unified Jerusalem, removing the refugee issue from the talks and recognising a Jewish state.”