Palestinian refusal to recognize that Israel is a Jewish state is the core issue keeping the sides from reaching a peace agreement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday, deflecting claims that settlement construction was the key roadblock.
Netanyahu made the comments during a press conference at the start of a meeting with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is visiting the country to support recently restarted peace talks.
“We have to get to the root cause of the problem and the root cause was and remains the persistent refusal to recognize the Jewish State in any boundary,” Netanyahu said, speaking in English. “It doesn’t have to do with the settlements – that’s an issue that has to be resolved, but this is not the reason that we have a continual conflict.”
Netanyahu’s comments came less than a week after Israel came under heavy international pressure for announcing that it would approve the construction of thousands of new homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, a move some Palestinian officials said could derail the peace talks before they got off the ground.
And on Thursday in Ramallah, Ban expressed concern that settlement building could prevent the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state. Meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Ban said that he was “deeply troubled by Israel’s continuing settlement activity in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.” Ban added that “the settlement activity is deepening the Palestinian people’s mistrust in the seriousness on the Israeli side toward achieving peace. It will ultimately render a two-state solution impossible.”
The prime minister, however, claimed Friday that building in areas that would remain under Israeli rule in any peace deal only distracted from the issue.
“I think it’s important to understand that if we build a few hundred apartments in Gilo or Ramot, or the other Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, or in urban blocks that everybody knows, including the Palestinian negotiating team, according to the Al Jazeera leaks, will be part of the final peace map in Israel, I think these are not the real issues that we need to discuss,” he said. “The real issue is how to get a demilitarized Palestinian state to finally recognize and accept the one and only Jewish State.”
Ban, who earlier in the day met with President Shimon Peres, praised the return to peace talks, but in a slight rebuff to Netanyahu, said the only way Israel could realize its potential would be by making peace with the Palestinians, which would involve a retreat from the West Bank.
“The prime minister knows that occupying Palestinian lands is not a long-term solution to Israel’s regional challenges,” he said.
Netanyahu also called on Ban to investigate a recent report that Gazan summer camps funded by the UN were being used to indoctrinate children against Israelis and Jews.
“I’m sure you are going to look into the abuse of UNRWA camps in Gaza that have been used purportedly for peace camps, but actually to instill the culture of hatred and the ideas of destroying Israel amidst Palestinian children,” he said. “It’s very hard to habituate and prepare the next generation for peace when they’re told that Jews are the descendants of pigs and monkeys and that the Jewish State has no right to exist.”
Earlier Friday, President Shimon Peres hosted Ban at Beit Hanassi (the presidential residence).
“Mr. Secretary General, you came at the right time with the right purpose,” Peres told his guest. “You announced before coming that you want to show your support for the beginning of the peace negotiations between the Palestinians and ourselves, and I think your presence here is important. You have a good opportunity to speak to the leaders of the two parties.”
Peres said it had been “very hard” for Netanyahu to take the decision needed to get the talks restarted — a presumed reference to this week’s release of 26 long-term Palestinian prisoners — “but he took it and he should get credit for it. I think it wasn’t simple for the president of the Palestinian people to do but likewise he did it. None of them could provide everything their people expected but [they] provided what the people need. Peace is a real need for both parties, none of us have an alternative. The overall situation in the Middle East is quite bleak and if we can achieve an agreement between us and the Palestinians it is good news in a region that needs good news. ”
Peres praised Ban’s efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria and said that “removing the chemical weapons from Syria is something all parties need. It needs to be excluded from the list of dangers sooner rather than later. This is a ticking bomb of mass destruction.”
Ban said his visit was taking place “at a crucially important time.” He said he and Peres agreed that “direct negotiations remain the single most credible path to a solution. Respecting their confidentiality is a sign how seriously the parties regard these talks. I commend the efforts of the US and particularly Secretary Kerry and the seriousness of the Palestinian and Israeli leaders. I’m also encouraged by the recent commitment made by the Arab leaders to revive the 2002 Arab peace initiative for regional stability,” he said.
Ban said he and Peres had “talked about how the UN and the international community can support progress towards a final status agreement that will make the two state solution a reality. We must overcome the deep skepticism that comes from 20 years of stalemate. I urge all parties to avoid actions that risk undermining the negotiations; both sides need to sustain an environment conducive for the peace process to move forward. People need to see improvement on the ground, including economic process for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and greater security for Israelis and Palestinians.”
Addressing Israel’s security concerns, Ban said, “I know that Israelis are watching developments with great concern; we don’t know where the fighting in Syria will lead, we wonder what will happen across the border in Egypt. I recall my last visit in November when rocket fire from Gaza caused some Israeli parents to send their children to shelters instead of schools… I understand the legitimate security concerns of the people and the government; they should be respected and protected. As I have said, it is unacceptable that Israelis should have to live in perpetual fear. President Peres is striving for peace so Israeli children can grow up in security, with Israel as a normal member of the region alongside the state of Palestine.”
Ban concluded by saying, “Genuine peace requires leadership and compromise, I hope all Israelis will do their part in helping to achieve this vision. The UN, and myself as secretary general, will spare no effort to compliment and facilitate this ongoing process.”