Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday called on the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table, saying that his demand that Ramallah recognize Israel as a Jewish state is not a precondition.
Netanyahu, speaking at the Herzliya policy conference, added that although he supports a two-state solution, a future Palestinian state would be demilitarized and Israel would maintain security control of West Bank area.
“I call on [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas to return to talks without preconditions,” he declared during a speech at the annual Herzliya Conference.
He added that though Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state was not a precondition for talks, it would form the basis of a lasting agreement.
“The Palestinians expect us to recognize a Palestinian state. But they won’t recognize a Jewish state for the Jewish people. That’s what we want. Mutual recognition,” he said.
He complained that Israel had put out it’s hand to the Palestinians, “time after time after time,” but Abbas had been unwilling to engage in talks.
“I’ve tried for six and a half years to have talks,” he said, pointing to the fact that a 10-month settlement freeze in 2009-2010 only led to six total hours of direct negotiations between him and Abbas, during which the Palestinian leader only demanded a longer moratorium on settlement building.
The prime minister said that he remains committed to the principle of two-states for two peoples, but insisted that Israel must maintain security control over the West Bank.
Netanyahu warned of the potential threat to Israel of terror tunnels being dug between Kalkilya in the West Bank and Kfar Saba, outside Tel Aviv — apparently in the event of Hamas or other extremist forces gaining control in the West Bank.
“Who will ultimately guarantee that those tunnels are not dug? Who will go in and stop it?” he asked, referring to a scenario in which Israel does not maintain the overall security control upon which he insists.
“What’s going to happen on the other side of the border?” [if Israel pulls out] he asked. “Another terror state, 20 times the size of the Gaza Strip, touching our soft belly,” he warned referring to the close proximity of the West Bank to Israel’s central cities.
Netanyahu also criticized the international community for its approach to the conflict, which he said drives peace away by encouraging the Palestinians even when they don’t negotiate.
“There are those who [seek to] impose terms in the Security Council because there are no talks,” he said, referring to efforts for a United Nations resolution setting a timetable for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
He said that approach only deters, since Israel will resist it, and it encourages the Palestinians to stay away from the bilateral negotiating table.
However, help might come from other states in the region, he said. “There might be an opening because some of the Arab states silently agree with what I say, because they might be in a position to influence the Palestinians to adopt a more conciliatory and positive approach,” he suggested.
“Israel must be strong, it must be very strong, no one will make peace with a weak Israel,” he said in the hour-long speech, in which he switched between English and Hebrew several times.
Peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority collapsed after nine months in April 2014 amid mutual recriminations that each side refused to live up to its pre-talks commitments.
On the Iranian nuclear threat, Netanyahu dismissed as “wishful thinking” the notion that Iran will give up international terrorism after a nuclear deal is sealed with world powers.
“According to this deal, Iran gets this big money regardless of its behavior,” he said, referring to an emerging deal being hammered out between the so-called P5+1 nations — the US, Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, and Germany — and Iran.
While Iran claims its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, world powers fear it is aimed at producing nuclear weapons and hope to reach an agreement by a June 30 deadline that would remove from Iran the ability to develop a bomb.
Netanyahu said other regional leaders who he spoke to were also against the deal, hinting that he was engaged in talks with Arab states that don’t officially have ties with Israel.
“The deal will spark both a nuclear and a conventional arms race in many countries in the most unstable part of the planet. It won’t make Israel safer,” he said. “Nobody around here thinks the deal will block Iran’s path to the bomb.”
He also criticized the format of the talks for not directly including any regional powers other than Iran.
“The states with the most at stake are not even in the room,” he lamented.
The trepidation of Sunni states regarding Iran on one hand and the Islamic State group on the other creates a change and a potential for cooperation, perhaps even to resolve the problems Israel has with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said.
“I don’t think [resolving the Palestinian conflict will fundamentally] change the Middle East,” he said, “and it won’t affect terror groups or Iran, but it will affect us.”