Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish homeland is chief among essential components for a peace deal, days ahead of renewed direct talks.
Netanyahu repeated his conditions for a settlement ahead of Thursday’s summit in Washington with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas for the first direct negotiations since talks collapsed in December 2008.
An agreement would have to be based “first of all on recognition of Israel as the national state of the Jewish people, an end to the conflict and an end to further demands on Israel,” Netanyahu said.
The Palestinians, who broke off the talks nearly two years ago after Israel staged a bloody offensive into the Gaza Strip, object to endorsing Israel as being essentially Jewish.
Such a move would imply they are dropping their claim that refugees who fled or were expelled when Israel was created in 1948, and their descendants, should be able to reclaim former homes now within Israel.
Netanyahu told reporters that he would also seek “real security arrangements on the ground” to prevent a recurrence in the West Bank of events that took place in the Gaza Strip after Israel pulled out in 2005 and in south Lebanon after the withdrawal in 2000.
The Islamist Hamas seized control in Gaza and used the coastal strip as a launching pad for attacks into Israel, and Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah fought a bloody war against Israel in 2006.
Netanyahu will personally lead the talks and hopes to meet Abbas every two weeks, a senior Israeli official said on Friday.
Key to the discussions will be the future of a partial Israeli moratorium on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, which expires on September 26.
Netanyahu faces strong pressure at home not to renew the freeze on new construction permits, but the Palestinians say Israel must chose between settlements and peace.
Abbas said on Palestinian television on Sunday Israel would be to blame if the talks fail over the settlements issue.
“I have to say, and we told all parties including the United States before accepting renewed talks, that the Israeli government will bear sole responsibility of the risk of failure of the talks if settlement activities continue in Palestinian territories occupied in 1967,” he said.
“We support the need of Israel and our people for security, but this cannot be a pretext to justify settlement activities and taking away other people’s land and rights.”
Settlements in the West Bank and Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem are considered illegal by the international community.
Meanwhile Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak held talks in Amman on Sunday with King Abdullah II ahead of the Washington summit, to which the Jordanian monarch and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have also been invited.
Abdullah told Barak the negotiations “should be dealt with in a serious way,” and that Middle East peace was “strategic” for the region and the world, the palace said.
In an interview with Israeli public television on Saturday, Abdullah called for steady progress in the negotiations to prevent extremism from returning to centre stage.
“I don’t think we should put a one-year target date,” he told Channel One TV. “Why wait for one year? The longer we wait, the more we give people a chance to create violence.”
A senior Jordanian official said his country and Egypt, the only two Arab states to have peace treaties with Israel, are cautious about the outcome of the talks “because historically such meetings have led to no success.”
Meanwhile the spiritual head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party in Israel’s ruling coalition has damned Abbas and his people ahead of the Washington summit, sparking an angry Palestinian reaction.
“May all the nasty people who hate Israel, like Abu Mazen (Abbas), vanish from our world,” Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said in a sermon on Saturday. “May God strike them down with the plague along with all the nasty Palestinians who persecute Israel.”
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat condemned the statement as “an incitement to genocide,” and urged the Israeli government “to do more about peace and stop spreading hatred.”
Netanyahu’s office said in a statement that Yosef’s comments “do not reflect the views of Benjamin Netanyahu or of his government” which seeks a peace settlement with the Palestinians.