The Palestinian leadership is unwilling to make compromises for peace, calling into question the efficacy of diplomatic negotiations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview published Thursday.
Speaking to Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg, Netanyahu laid blame for the collapse of peace talks on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and hinted that Israel may have to consider taking unilateral steps with regard to the West Bank.
Netanyahu also backed the Obama administration’s decision not to strike Syria last August, calling the ensuing removal of chemical weapons “one ray of light in a very dark region.”
In Netanyahu’s first comments to the press since peace talks broke down late last month, the prime minister struck a pessimistic tone regarding the possibility of restarting negotiations.
“Negotiations are always preferable. But six prime ministers since Oslo have failed in their pursuit of a negotiated settlement,” he said. “They’ve always thought we were on the verge of success, and then [Yasser] Arafat backed off, Mahmoud Abbas backed off, because they can’t conclude these negotiations. We don’t have a Palestinian leadership that is willing to do that. The minimal set of conditions that any Israeli government would need cannot be met by the Palestinians.”
Asked about the possibility of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, Netanyahu acknowledged that the idea was gaining traction across the political spectrum, but warned that Israel could not risk another Gaza, which was taken over by Hamas after Israeli unilaterally disengaged.
“Many Israelis are asking themselves if there are certain unilateral steps that could theoretically make sense. But people also recognize that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza didn’t improve the situation or advance peace,” he said.
Negotiations collapsed after nine months in April amid mutual recriminations that each side refused to live up to its pre-talks commitments.
While Netanyahu backed efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry to bring the sides to the table, he blamed Abbas for not taking the Americans seriously.
“What has Abbas done? Nothing. He’s refused to entertain Kerry’s efforts to try and lock horns on the core issues. He internationalized the conflict,” he said, referring to the Palestinian leader’s decision to apply to 15 international treaties, which Jerusalem said broke a Palestinian commitment not to apply for statehood to the UN.
Asked about Palestinian attitudes to Israel, Netanyahu said: “I think Palestinian society is divided into two. The first half openly calls for Israel’s destruction. And the second half refuses to confront this and refuses to confront the demons inside their own camp. In Israel, there is a vigorous debate about what compromise would entail. There is no such debate in the Palestinian Authority. I’m not talking about Hamas. I’m talking about the so-called moderates who will not talk about the minimal conditions that are necessary for peace from the point of view of any Israeli government and just about any Israeli. They expect us to just leave, shut our eyes, tear out the settlements. Well, been there, done that. We did it in Gaza. And what we got was not peace, but rocket fire.”
Netanyahu also ruled out a settlement freeze: “I don’t think it would work,” he said. “Having tried once, I saw that it doesn’t work. The Americans said the only way Abbas is going to come into negotiations is either you release prisoners or freeze settlements: Choose. We chose [to release prisoners]. We made it very clear to the US and to the Palestinians exactly how much we would build, including in Jerusalem. We built exactly what we said we would build in every one of the tranches. It wasn’t that we surprised anyone with extra construction.”
Netanyahu stressed a desire to resolve the Palestinian conflict: “I hope we resolve it, for our sake. I hope we resolve it because I don’t want a binational state. I hope we resolve it because I’d like to have broader and more open relations with the Arab world, and I hope to resolve it in order to remove the unjustified attacks on Israel. But we are proceeding ahead despite this. We don’t mortgage our future to the maturation of Palestinian politics.”
On Syria, Netanyahu said he supported US President Barack Obama’s decision not to strike Damascus after a devastating chemical attack, saying he “appreciated the effort” to instead force Syrian president Bashar Assad to give up his chemical stockpile. However, he noted that Assad had not relinquished all his arms, worrying Israel.
“We are concerned that they may not have declared all of their capacity. But what has been removed has been removed. We’re talking about 90 percent,” he said.
Netanyahu highlighted differences of opinion with the Obama administration on how to tackle Iran’s nuclear program — he reiterated that Iran must be denied a nuclear weapons capability, with the dismantling of its enrichment capacity, while the US says only that Iran must be denied a nuclear weapon. But the prime minister also praised defense cooperation with the US, which he said had not suffered under Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, seen by some before he took office as anti-Israel.
“The relationship has truly been fine. Our defense cooperation and intelligence sharing, which has been substantial in both directions, and our work on anti-missile and anti-rocket defense have been very good… That doesn’t mean we can’t have differences of opinion on Iran.”
The interview was published Friday morning in Israel, hours after Netanyahu presented former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, owner of the Bloomberg news empire, with the $1-million Genesis Prize. Bloomberg, a billionaire, said he will donate the prize to charity.