Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has offered to renew a partial settlement construction freeze in exchange for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. He announced the offer on Monday, just three days after the Palestinians and Arab states gave the US a month to persuade Israel to renew a 10-month moratorium on settlement housing starts that expired on September 26.
Netanyahu’s proposal met with swift rejection from senior Palestinian officials. “The whole world holds Netanyahu responsible for what is happening in the region, after he chose to push ahead with the settlement project at the expense of an advance in the peace process. Settlement freeze is a commitment Netanyahu should respect,” Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told Al Jazeera.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior official of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, described the settlement issue as “an aggression on Palestinian rights and land”. “What Israel calls itself is an Israeli matter that does not concern us. The two issues are not related,” he told Al Jazeera in reference to Netanyahu’s condition that Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state.
Nabil Abu Rudainah, the spokesman for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, said a return to peace talks required a freeze on settlement building by Israel. “The issue of the Jewishness of the state has nothing to do with the matter,” he told the Reuters news agency.
Netanyahu made the offer in a policy speech opening the winter session of the Knesset (parliament). He said Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state was essential before a Palestinian state could be created in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. “If the Palestinian leadership will say unequivocally to its people that it recognises Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, I will be ready to convene my government and request a further suspension,” he said.
In his speech, Netanyahu also cited the need for strong measures to ensure Israel’s security under any peace deal. He said Israel was weighing US proposals, including some concerning security, to salvage the negotiations. A senior Israeli official has said Washington is seeking a two-month extension of the settlement building moratorium to give more time for direct diplomacy.
Palestinians view settlements in the West Bank, on land Israel occupied in a 1967 war, as an obstacle to the establishment of a viable and contiguous state. Netanyahu has made recognition of Israel as a Jewish state a centrepiece of his government’s policy. Palestinians fear such a move could impede the rights of Palestinian refugees, who fled or were forced out of their homes in Israeli-Arab wars, to return to territory that is now Israel.