PM points to Palestinian denial of Jewish state as root of conflict

WATCH: Speaking to Saban Forum, Netanyahu derides as ‘childish and irrelevant’ claims that settlements at core of Israel-Palestinian fighting

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Benjamin Netanyahu delivering a video address on December 6, 2015. (screen capture: YouTube)
Benjamin Netanyahu delivering a video address on December 6, 2015. (screen capture: YouTube)

WASHINGTON — Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the Jewish state, and not settlement building, is the root cause of the conflict, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told attendees at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum for Middle East Policy during a video address Sunday.

In a brief speech that excoriated the Palestinian leadership for perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu said that this refusal to recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state is the “reason that peace hasn’t happened yet.”

“That was and remains the core of the conflict — not this or that gesture or the absence of this or that gesture but the unwillingness of Palestinian leadership to make that leap,” the prime minister said.

Netanyahu specifically cited recent comments by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, complaining that Abbas referred to “the occupation of Palestinian land for 67 years.”

In doing so, Netanyahu said, Abbas implied that all of Israel – including the land within the 1967 boundaries — was under Israeli occupation, effectively denying the legitimacy of any Israeli presence in the region.

“He refuses to fess up to that to his own people,” Netanyahu criticized. “They refuse to recognize that they will have no more claim to the territory of the Jewish state.”

Netanyahu chided as “childish and irrelevant” claims made that the Israel Palestinian conflict is the core of the conflict in the Middle East. The same conclusion, he insisted, “will happen with the argument that the core of the conflict are the settlements or the territories.”

“They are an issue to be resolved but they are not the core of the conflict,” Netanyahu said of the settlements.

Israel’s policies in the West Bank have long been a burr in the side of US-Israel relations. A day earlier, speaking before the same forum, US Secretary of State John Kerry warned that settlements and demolitions in the West Bank were leading Israel away from a two-state solution.

“The only reasonable solution is a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state,” Netanyahu asserted. “We still have many issues to resolve, but it begins with the recognition of the right of the Jewish people to have a state at all.”

Despite chiding the Obama administration on the emphasis it places on settlement policy, at both the beginning and the end of his address, Netanyahu stressed the positive aspects of US-Israel relations.

“Nobody should underestimate the bond between Israel and the US,” he told an audience that included former members of the Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations.

After months in which he was accused of courting partisan support for Israel among Republicans, the prime minister stressed that Israel has enjoyed strong support “across the partisan divide” and Israel “cherishes your support and values it.”

He stressed common interests in the region and in combating terror.

“Terror in California, Paris and Israel is attacking all the things that define the value of life in our eyes,” he said.

Israel, Netanyahu said, had “deconflicted” with Russia regarding Syria – using a term bandied about recently by the Obama administration to emphasize the lowering of great power tensions surrounding multi-party involvement in the civil war.

In his efforts to end the speech on a positive note, however, Netanyahu raised eyebrows.

“You can’t be leader of the Jewish people and lose hope,” Netanyahu concluded, in a comment that immediately was cited for his assertion that the prime minister of Israel spoke for the world Jewish population.

“I must have missed the election,” quipped American-Jewish columnist Jeffrey Goldberg on his Twitter account.

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