RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinian president will invite Israeli politicians to the West Bank to try to make sure peacemaking is on the new government's agenda, a senior official said Thursday, as a top Israeli hard-liner proposed sidelining the polarizing issue.
Hoping to capitalize on the unexpected strength of moderates in Israel's incoming parliament, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants to sit down with representatives of Israeli parliamentary factions to discuss the possibility of settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict peacefully, senior Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo told The Associated Press.
"We invite the Israeli parties, particularly the new ones, for dialogue on future accords," Abed Rabbo said.
He did not say when the invitations would go out, but emphasized that Abbas wanted the meeting to take place before Israel forms its next government — a process that is expected to take several weeks.
Tuesday's parliamentary vote ended in a surprise near deadlock between a hawkish, religious bloc that earned 61 seats in the 120-seat parliament and a camp of centrist, secular and Arab parties that earned 59, according to final results announced Thursday.
While Benjamin Netanyahu, as head of the largest single party in parliament, appears set to remain prime minister, he'll have a very hard time putting together a stable coalition without drawing in moderates beyond his traditional hardline and religious base. Technically, he could garner a 61-seat majority without reaching across the aisle, but such a coalition would be very difficult to maintain and would not be able to pursue reforms Netanyahu has pledged. He has already extended his hand to a new centrist party that advocates more serious efforts to end the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Peace talks reached an impasse before Netanyahu came into office four years ago and never resumed in earnest. The main obstacle during his tenure has been continued construction of Jewish settlements in areas captured in the 1967 war, the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 but still controls access by land, sea and air.
Abed Rabbo said the Palestinians have not dropped two longstanding conditions for negotiations — Israel must stop settlement building and the contours of the Palestinian state must be negotiated on the basis of the borders Israel held before 1967.
While opinion polls indicate a majority of Israelis back the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, peacemaking was barely mentioned as a campaign issue, reflecting widespread doubts that peace is possible after decades of violence and stop-and-go talks.
Still, the election's outcome defied forecasts that Netanyahu and his allies would steer a government with an even more hard-line makeup.
Instead, his top partner is likely to be Yesh Atid, a new party with moderate views on peacemaking that has emerged as Israel's new power broker.
Yesh Atid's leader, political newcomer Yair Lapid, has said he will not sit in a government that is not seriously pursuing peace with the Palestinians. But the focus of his campaign has been mostly on helping the needs of Israel's struggling middle class, raising questions about how hard he will push on the peace issue.
Lawmaker Avigdor Lieberman, a Netanyahu ally, told Israel Radio on Thursday that the next government must focus on domestic issues rather than peacemaking to avoid political paralysis, given lawmakers' sharply divergent views.
"If we want to founder from the outset, and embark upon endless internal struggles, then make foreign policy the top priority," he said.
"If we want the government to be effective and accomplish things, and leave a strong, significant imprint, I think everyone understands the need for domestic changes is dramatic, and that is the order of the day. So leave the foreign issues aside," he said.
Netanyahu has hinted that is the direction he is going in through the two brief statements he has given since the election results came in late Tuesday. Both statements have focused on the need to build a broad coalition to address pressing domestic issues.
Lieberman's ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party teamed up on a joint list with Netanyahu's Likud for Tuesday's election.