Netanyahu says he will never accept preconditions for talks

Prime minister says Palestinian calls for a building freeze before negotiations constitute an ‘impassable obstacle’

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Benjamin Netanyahu at a Knesset meeting (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu at a Knesset meeting (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel rejects Palestinian preconditions for negotiations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday, dismissing Palestinian demands for a settlement freeze ahead of negotiations and stressing that nothing on the Israeli side stands in the way of talks progressing.

His comments came in the wake of news that the Palestinians had rejected an offer last year to return to talks in exchange for the release of prisoners, and ahead of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s fifth visit to the region in four months to cajole the sides to the table.

Speaking to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Netanyahu said that he made his stance on Palestinian preconditions clear in conversations with Kerry. He called preconditions an “impassable obstacle.”

Netanyahu underscored that  Israel is placing no prerequisites on negotiations with the Palestinians but accused Mahmoud Abbas and the PA leadership of creating conditions they know Israel will never accept as an excuse to avoid talks. Every time Israel gives the Palestinians what they want, he said, they add new demands.

Ramallah insists on a building freeze and prisoner releases before restarting talks, which have been all but frozen since 2008.

On Monday, the Times of Israel revealed that last year Netanyahu offered to free 50 long-serving Palestinian security prisoners, many convicted of violent crimes, in a bid to bring Abbas back to the negotiating table. The Palestinians rejected the idea. According to senior Palestinian sources, the release of only 50 prisoners was unacceptable. They demanded that all 107 Palestinians incarcerated since before the Oslo Accords be freed before talks continue.

At Monday’s meeting, chaired by Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu urged the assembled MKs to support a negotiated settlement. “If we do enter talks, they will be very tough,” he said, “but the alternative is a binational state, something we do not want.”

His comments served as a further rejection of a statement last week by Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, who told The Times of Israel the government would never sign on to a two-state deal. The comment caused a storm in Jerusalem, with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads negotiations with the Palestinians, calling on Netanyahu Monday to reject ‘Danonism.’

‘No international force’

Netanyahu quashed the idea of an international force guaranteeing Israeli security in the event of a two-state solution, citing the recent withdrawal of Austrian UN peacekeepers from the Golan Heights. Netanyahu did, however, accept some role for international troops in the region, but added “we cannot rely on them.”

Netanyahu also pledged to press ahead with construction in the West Bank. “Building in Judea and Samaria will continue, it is continuing even today, but we have to understand what is happening around us. We have to be smart, not only right. Settlements in the main blocs do not fundamentally change our ability to reach an agreement.” The real issue, the prime minister stressed, is whether the Palestinians can accept the Jewish state.

Official numbers released Sunday showed that settlement housing starts in the first quarter of 2013 nearly tripled, when compared to the year before.

However, officials in the Housing Ministry, Israel Lands Authority and Jerusalem Municipality said Monday that Netanyahu had put a de facto freeze on building and construction in East Jerusalem, according to an Army Radio report.

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