- The Washington Times - Monday, March 30, 2009

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC (AP) - Israeli President Shimon Peres expressed optimism Monday that his country’s next government can achieve Mideast peace, even though the coalition will contain parties traditionally opposed to making concessions to the Palestinians.

His comments appeared aimed a soothing both U.S. and EU concern that the new government under Benjamin Netanyahu may abandon the concept of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel as the primary goal of a Western-backed “road map” to peace in the Middle East.

Peres spoke on the eve of the swearing in of a new Israeli coalition government, including hawkish parties opposed to major concessions to the Palestinians, and after meeting with Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic, which holds the rotating EU presidency.

Netanyahu has been a critic of past peace efforts that require Israeli concessions. But he recently pledged that his government _ which includes the centrist Labor Party _ will pursue peace with the Palestinians.

Peres seized on that promise by expressing optimism that the new government will be fully committed to seeking a Middle East settlement.



“They say, ‘We shall continue the negotiations with the Palestinians,’” he told reporters. “They say, ‘We shall negotiate with each one of our neighbors.’ They say, ‘Yes, we would like to develop the regional economic opportunities, and they say also, `We are going to see what can be done in terms of peace on regional level.’

“And then they are saying also they are going to respect the previous government commitments. So I would think this is a very reasonable and promising beginning.”

An Israeli government statement on the visit quoted Peres as saying “the Israeli people want true peace between Israel and its neighbors, and the new government … will be for peace.”

Netanyahu last week said his government would be a “partner for peace with the Palestinians.” His comments, just a day after President Barack Obama pledged that the U.S. would push creation of a Palestinian state, reflected a softening of his previous skepticism about Mideast peace negotiations.

During the election campaign, Netanyahu derided the past year of peace efforts and indicated he would halt negotiations to focus on developing the Palestinian economy _ a stance alluded to by Peres Monday. Netanyahu also said he would allow existing Jewish settlements to expand to accommodate “natural growth” in their populations.

Even if he has moderated his stance, however, Netanyahu has still not specifically expressed backing for an independent Palestinian state. Nor has he spelled out how he would quell expected internal opposition to meaningful talks with the Palestinians.

Israel’s neighbors also are concerned.

On Monday, Syrian President Bashar Assad told a summit of Arab leaders that the “real aim of Israel’s recently elected government is against peace” and that the composition of the incoming Cabinet is a “clear, unsurprising message to us.”

Besides Labor, at the forefront of peace efforts, Netanyahu’s chief partner is Yisrael Beitenu. Its leader and designated foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has drawn allegations of racism for a proposal that could strip Israeli Arabs of their citizenship unless they declare loyalty to the Jewish state.

Another coalition partner, the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, objects to even discussing sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians.

The Israeli statement quoted Klaus as saying that his country, in its EU presidency role, will continue to support the advancement of the peace process. “We understand well the problems and threats that Israel is coping with, and we intend to continue to be a major player in the process, including with the new government,” Klaus was quoted as saying.

Like the U.S., the EU also has backed a “two-state solution” _ an independent Palestine living side to side with Israel _ and cautioned that bilateral ties may hang in the balance.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, warned earlier this month that the EU would rethink its support for Israel unless it backed an independent Palestinian state. And Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg last week said after chairing an EU foreign ministers’ meeting that both parties must stick to past commitments that included the “two-state solution.”

The Czech government is keen to push other members to strengthen the bloc’s relations with Israel, including better access to the vast European market. But skepticism on the part of some EU member nations may have been strengthened because of perceptions that Israel overreacted in the Gaza conflict and over the incoming government’s commitment to the peace process.

Peres suggested that economic cooperation should not be tied to political developments in a global economy.

“We have borders that remain political but are not any more economic,” he said, adding Israel needed a “coalition with the rest of the world.”

__

George Jahn reported from Vienna. Associated Press Writers Joseph Federman in Jerusalem and Robert Wielaard in Brussels contributed to this report.

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