Israel hopes for peace

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/09/world/middleeast/09mideast.html?ref=global-home

JERUSALEM — Under mounting American pressure to define his intentions regarding peace efforts, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said Sunday that he would make a major policy speech next week mapping out the government’s “principles for achieving peace and security.”

The announcement came against the background of rising tensions with the Obama administration, which has demanded that Israel freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank. The Netanyahu government insists that construction within existing settlements should continue.

In another point of contention, Mr. Netanyahu has refused to endorse explicitly the notion of establishing an independent Palestinian state, a cornerstone of American and European policy on the Middle East.

President Obama’s Middle East envoy, George J. Mitchell, is expected in Jerusalem and other parts of the region this week.

On a stopover in Oslo, Mr. Mitchell said Monday that Washington wants “immediate” talks between the Palestinians and Israel to forge a comprehensive peace agreement. Reuters quoted him as saying that the aim of such talks was “a comprehensive peace and normalization of relations” between Israel and its neighbors, which would also serve “the security interests of the United States.”

“The president has told me to exert all efforts to create the circumstance when the parties can begin immediate discussions,” Mr. Mitchell was quoted as telling a Palestinian donors’ conference in the Norwegian capital.

“It’s important that there is a building of institutions and governmental capacity so that at an early time there can be an independent and viable Palestinian state,” he said.

On Sunday, in comments at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, Mr. Netanyahu said, “We want to achieve peace with the Palestinians and with the countries of the Arab world, while attempting to reach maximum understanding with the United States and our friends around the world.”

His government, led by the conservative Likud Party, was sworn in nine weeks ago. Mr. Netanyahu says he has been reformulating Israeli peace policy. Some Israeli commentators have wondered how Mr. Netanyahu, whose last government fell apart in 1999, seemingly returned to office without a clear agenda.

Ben Caspit, a columnist, wrote Sunday in the newspaper Maariv that Mr. Netanyahu, “who opted to squander his period of grace on meaningless ‘reassessment’ meetings, is now going to have to be particularly creative if he wants to renew trust between the United States and Israel.”

Israeli officials say they expect the Obama administration to respect understandings they say were reached — some written and some oral — with the Bush administration on building within existing settlements.

The Obama administration has bluntly dismissed Israel’s argument. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that “there is no memorialization of any informal and oral agreements” on construction in settlements. “If they did occur, which, of course, people say they did, they did not become part of the official position of the United States government,” she said.

Both clarifying and complicating the issue on Sunday, Dov Weissglas, who was a senior adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when some of the understandings were reached early in the decade and was his liaison with American officials, said the written understanding on development within the settlements was “part of a host of understandings around the road map.”

The road map, a 2003 peace plan, called on Israel to freeze all settlement activity and on the Palestinians to dismantle terrorist networks. The goal was the creation of a Palestinian state.

“In other words,” Mr. Weissglas told Israel Radio, “whoever does not accept the road map cannot demand rights without taking on the obligations.”

Mr. Netanyahu has said his government will abide by signed agreements, but he has not publicly endorsed the road map. Israeli officials emphasize that the Palestinians and Arab parties, and not only Israel, have obligations to fulfill, a point also made by President Obama on Friday.

In Germany, Mr. Obama said the Palestinians “have to continue to make progress on security in the West Bank” and deal with “corruption and mismanagement” within the Palestinian Authority.

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