Netanyahu offers conditional settlements freeze

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s prime minister offered to renew a moratorium on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank on Monday, but only if the Palestinians meet his demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

The proposal is the first time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly suggested a way to end an impasse over settlement construction that has stalled Mideast peace talks just a month after they were launched at the White House.

Palestinians swiftly rejected his condition.

Mr. Netanyahu has been under heavy international pressure to renew a just-expired 10-month moratorium on new West Bank settlement construction. The Palestinians say they will walk away from the talks if the curbs are lifted.

Mr. Netanyahu, who leads a pro-settler coalition of religious and nationalist parties, so far has resisted the calls, but he has signaled he is open to a compromise. U.S. mediators have been offering a series of vague assurances on the security and diplomatic fronts to mollify Israel, but a deal has been elusive.

Mr. Netanyahu laid out his proposal in a policy speech to parliament Monday.

“If the Palestinian leadership would say unequivocally to its people that it recognizes Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, I will be willing to convene my government and ask for an additional suspension,” he said.

“As the Palestinians expect that we will recognize a Palestinian state as their national homeland, we are entitled to expect that they will recognize Israel as our national homeland,” he added.

An Arab-Israeli lawmaker yelled out as Mr. Netanyahu spoke, “This is a ridiculous proposal!” Right-wing lawmakers also heckled his suggestion that the moratorium could be extended.

Mr. Netanyahu has made similar demands in the past, though he has not explicitly linked it to the settlement issue. On Sunday, his Cabinet passed a bill that would require non-Jewish immigrants to pledge allegiance to the “Jewish and democratic” state of Israel in order to receive citizenship.

The Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, saying it discriminates against Israel’s Arab minority and denies the rights of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their homes in what is now Israel. They said it is sufficient that they recognize Israel’s right to exist, but not up to them to determine Israel’s character.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Mr. Netanyahu of “playing games” by linking settlements and Israel’s national character.

“I don’t see a relevance between his obligations under international law and him trying to define the nature of Israel,” he said. “I hope he will stop playing these games and will start the peace process by stopping settlements.”

The fate of Israel’s West Bank settlements is one of the thornier issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. About 300,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank among 2.5 million Palestinians. Another 200,000 Israelis live in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.

The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as parts of a future independent state and say that continued Israeli settlement construction sends a message that Israel is not serious about reaching a peace deal.

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