Netanyahu yields on Palestinian sovereignty

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a major shift, will accept the notion of a Palestinian state — a policy pushed by the Obama administration but resisted until now by Mr. Netanyahu, Israeli officials and Americans briefed on the Israeli leader’s thinking said.

The policy reversal, which is expected to go public this weekend, could help restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and allow the Israeli leader to steer a course between Mr. Obama’s view and those of his own hawkish base.

The Israeli and American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Washington Times on Thursday that Mr. Netanyahu, in a major speech Sunday, will, however, set Israeli parameters for recognizing Palestinian sovereignty.

The officials said Mr. Netanyahu will emphasize Palestinian obligations under the “road map” to peace in the Middle East — a three-phase process for negotiations initiated by the George W. Bush administration, which so far has not been followed.

Any discussion of a two-state solution and negotiations on so-called final-status issues — including the borders of a future Palestinian state would represent a major modification of Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign platform in which he promised a “bottom up” approach to negotiations focusing on economic issues.

The conditions he is expected to put forward include:

• Any Palestinian state must be demilitarized, without an air force, full-fledged army or heavy weapons.

• Palestinians may not sign treaties with powers hostile to Israel.

• A Palestinian state must allow Israeli civilian and military aircraft unfettered access to Palestinian airspace, allow Israel to retain control of the airwaves and to station Israeli troops on a future state’s eastern and southern borders.

• Palestinians must accept Israel as a Jewish state, a nod to the hawkish side of Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition that has raised concerns that the Palestinian Authority, which nominally governs the West Bank, does not recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

The State Department declined to comment on the details of what Mr. Netanyahu is expected to say.

While both Mr. Netanyahu and President Obama have emphasized the need for the wider Arab world to support negotiations by recognizing Israel, the two leaders have clashed over Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Mr. Netanyahu has asserted Israel’s right to expand settlements to account for “natural growth,” meaning the children of nearly a half-million Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have rejected any further settlement construction.

Mr. Obama’s special envoy for Arab-Israeli negotiations, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, was in Jerusalem this week to discuss the idea of swapping West Bank land for territory in Israel to allow some settlements to remain within Israel’s final borders, according to the BBC.

“Among the elements one would expect in the speech would be an emphasis on a demilitarized state; there should be no treaties with hostile states; and it must have open airspace and Israeli control of the electromagnetic spectrum,” said an Israeli official who asked not to be named because the speech was still being refined.

Mr. Netanyahu this week began a series of consultations with his political coalition in the run-up to the speech to be given at Bar-Ilan University between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He met with members of his center-right Likud Party in his office Wednesday to explain the speech and told them: “There are considerations you arent aware of.”

Aaron Miller, a former Arab-Israeli negotiator for Republican and Democratic administrations, said a Netanyahu endorsement of a two-state solution with conditions is “meant to cover Netanyahu politically as he obviously endorses Palestinian statehood through the back door.”

As for the specific caveats attached to creation of a Palestinian state, Mr. Miller said, the same issues were discussed at length in 2000 at Camp David in the last serious round of U.S.-brokered final status negotiations between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who is defense minister in the Netanyahu government.

“There were hours of discussion of demilitarization around all of these issues,” said Mr. Miller, who was present in most of the meetings at Camp David. “There were no formal conditions advanced or codified. There is no question that Ehud Barak’s needs and requirements on security would relate to a new conception of Palestinian sovereignty around demilitarization. The Israelis also had requirements on the Jordan Valley [but] none of this advanced to the level of what you could even call understandings. These were discussions.”

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, said he thought it was reasonable to expect Palestinian negotiators to agree to a demilitarized state that did not enter into agreements with countries hostile to Israel.

But Mr. Ibish said that the Israeli conditions regarding airspace and the airwaves should be viewed as a starting point.

“The question of airspace and the electromagnetic spectrum is probably something that will require much more negotiations,” Mr. Ibish said. “The idea that the Palestinian state will not have sovereignty over these aspects of national life is one thing, saying that there will be accommodations for Israeli security concerns something else altogether.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he expected the Israeli prime minister to reject what Palestinians call a right of return, a demand that the Palestinians displaced by the founding of Israel in 1948 have claims to territory inside the pre-1967 borders of Israel.

“I think he will say no right of return and reassert the unity of Jerusalem. It will be consistent with past understandings and that they see the road map as the basis of further action,” Mr. Hoenlein said.

Hagit Ofran, the head of the Settlement Watch Project for Israeli Peace Now, said that the first phase of the road map required Israel to freeze settlements, and the original deadline in May 2003 for Israel to do that was one week.

“We have been in the first week of the road map for six years now,” she told editors and reporters of The Times earlier this week.

She added that settlement activity has continued unabated since the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and Mr. Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization but that she thinks Mr. Netanyahu could survive in office even if he halts settlement growth.

She also said that if she were Mr. Obama, she would prefer a different government like the current one in Israel.

“I want to clarify the issue for Israel. Do we want to continue to build settlements, or do we want peace?” she asked. “We have heard Israeli leaders say they are against settlements but they were still built. If this is what Israel is saying, let it sing.”

Abraham Rabinovich in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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