Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly pledged to establish a demilitarized Palestinian state, the first time he has ever officially done so, in a letter sent Saturday night to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Haaretz reported on Monday.
The letter was delivered to the PA leader by special envoy Yitzhak Molcho, who met with Abbas for 90 minutes at his Ramallah headquarters.
The written communication, the contents of which have not been officially released, came in response to a dispatch sent last month from Abbas to Netanyahu, the text of which was obtained by The Times of Israel. That letter, delivered by PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and head of Palestinian Intelligence Majed Faraj, criticized Netanyahu for weakening the PA.
According to a Haaretz source who claimed to have seen Netanyahu’s letter, the prime minister pledged his support for a two-state solution. Although Netanyahu has in the past publicly declared his willingness to accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel, including during a speech made to the US Congress in 2011, the letter marked the first time he has put those words in an official document.
The letter came short of calling for a state within the 1967 borders, according to a number of senior Palestinian sources, Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported Monday.
The prime minister also made clear his desire to restart negotiations as soon as possible on the wave of opportunity that the broad unity government gives him, Haaretz reported.
Netanyahu’s letter implied that Israel’s new unity government allowed the Palestinians “a save-facing way” to return to the negotiation table, a government official said. Since Kadima is considered more left-wing than the other coalition parties, the Palestinian leaders can justify to their constituencies resuming talks with Jerusalem without preconditions, the official said.
As Abbas reiterated in his letter to Netanyahu, he made talks conditional on a settlement freeze in the West Bank.
“Abbas himself said that he cannot be less Palestinian than Obama,” the official said, referring to US President Barack Obama’s stance that Israel should stop building settlements in the West Bank. “Now that Kadima is in the government the Palestinians can spin it in a way that allows them to backtrack from that position without losing face. Before the unity government, they didn’t want to talk to Israel because they perceived it as right-wing. Now the Palestinians can make use of that new perception that maybe we’re now more willing to be flexible, and come and restart the talks.”
Netanyahu’s letter is intended to place the ball in the Palestinians’ court, the official said.
In the past Netanyahu has indicated to US officials that his narrow majority government prevented him from making progress in the peace process but now US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has told him she is waiting to see how he moves diplomacy forward. Likewise, Abbas is under pressure from the US to reopen direct talks with Israel similar to the ultimately failed negotiations at the beginning of the year between Molho and Erekat that were hosted by Jordan.
However, although Netanyahu and Abbas issued a joint statement following the recent letter saying that both parties are committed to achieving peace and that the exchange of missives was a step in that direction, Netenyahu’s letter disappointed Palestinian officials, who said it fell short of agreeing to halt settlement construction. The Palestinians see the settlements as a major block to negotiations and have demanded a halt on construction as a prerequisite to talks. Israel maintains that the settlement issue should be resolved along with other negotiated problems.
Nonetheless, the Palestinians have not dismissed the letter and will now consult with Arab countries about how best to proceed, Haaretz said.