JERUSALEM – In a direct challenge to President Barack Obama’s commitment to rejuvenate moribund Mideast peace talks, Israel on Thursday dismissed American-led efforts to establish a Palestinian state and laid out new conditions for renewed negotiations.
Leaders of Israel’s hawkish new government told former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, the special U.S. envoy, that they aren’t going to rush into peace talks with their Palestinian neighbors.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he would require Palestinians to accept Israel as a Jewish state in any future negotiations – a demand that Palestinians have up to now rejected, Israeli government officials said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Obama’s envoy that past Israeli concessions led to war, not peace.
These were Mitchell’s first meetings with Israeli leaders since Netanyahu’s center-right government took power two weeks ago.
Palestinian leaders have said they won’t open peace talks with Netanyahu’s government until it agrees in principle to the idea of a two-state solution and imposes a freeze on building Jewish housing in the West Bank.
As expected, Mitchell made it clear that the Obama administration sees the two-state solution as the foundation for future talks.
“U.S. policy favors – with the respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a two-state solution, which would have a Palestinian state living in peace alongside the Jewish state of Israel,” Mitchell said before meeting with Lieberman.
Netanyahu has refused to embrace that formula and has instead floated the idea of offering Palestinians limited rights that would fall short of independence.
Netanyahu reiterated his stand in his meeting with Mitchell, said one Israeli government official.
Netanyahu also indicated that Palestinians would have to accept Israel as a Jewish state in negotiations.
“For us, this is a crucial element,” the official said. “It’s a fundamental element in peace talks.”
In recent years, Israeli leaders have been pushing this demand as a way to ensure that the nation retains its Jewish identity. However, compelling Palestinians to accept the idea would all but require them to abandon their demands that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to homes they abandoned when Israel was established in 1948.