JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding that Israeli troops remain on the border of a future Palestinian state with neighboring Jordan, further antagonizing the Palestinians at a time when they are already threatening to walk out of peace talks.
The negotiations, which resumed this month in Washington after a two-year breakdown, are foundering over Palestinian demands that Israel extend a curb on Jewish construction in the West Bank. That curb, in place for 10 months, is set to expire Sunday.
Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel’s military chief, told lawmakers on Tuesday that the military was preparing for possible clashes between Israelis and Palestinians should the negotiations run aground.
Resolution of the settlement building dispute is critical to the fate of the peace talks because the Palestinians say they won’t negotiate unless the construction slowdown continues.
For Mr. Netanyahu, the cardinal factor for Israel in any peace deal is the Jewish state’s security. He has contended that Israel must maintain a troop presence along the border with Jordan to keep Palestinian militants from smuggling in weapons to the West Bank after a peace deal is reached.
On Monday, Mr. Netanyahu drove home this position in great detail — angering the Palestinians, who flatly reject the idea as an infringement of their prospective sovereignty. They have proposed that an international force be deployed instead.
“I don’t believe that under these circumstances, international troops will do the job,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a conference call with U.S. Jewish leaders. “The only force that can be relied on to defend the Jewish people is the Israeli Defense Force.”
That will never happen, said Palestinian spokesman Husam Zomlot, adding that “not one Israeli soldier” will be permitted to remain in a future Palestinian state.
“An international presence will be able to monitor and enforce security once the political situation has been sorted (out),” Mr. Zomlot said.
Gen. Ashkenazi underscored concerns of possible violence should the talks falter.
“The Palestinians have sober expectations that something positive will come out of the talks,” he told parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, according to a participant in the meeting. “The level of expectations will produce a similar level of disappointment (should talks fail).”
Gen. Ashkenazi said that the military was planning for this scenario and a possible eruption of violence, but that he didn’t expect violence to reach the levels of 2000 — when a Palestinian campaign of suicide bombings and shooting attacks broke out after the collapse of peace talks.
Gen. Ashkenazi added that tensions could rise as well among Jewish settlers, who are hoping for a resumption of settlement construction, the participant said.
The participant spoke on condition of anonymity, according to parliamentary protocol.
Under intense U.S. pressure, Israel agreed in November to curb West Bank settlement construction to help lure the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Mr. Netanyahu maintains that his coalition government, dominated by hard-line parties that champion settlement-building, would be fractured if the slowdown were to be extended.
Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau told Army Radio he would advance plans to build hundreds of millions of dollars in water and sewer projects for the settlements. Right-wing lawmakers plan to hold a celebration Sunday in the West Bank settlement of Revava, where, they say, bulldozers and cement mixers would begin work on a new neighborhood.
The Palestinians, backed by the United States and other nations, want Israel to extend the curbs, hoping that would create the good will needed to prod talks ahead.
The settlements, home to some 300,000 Israelis, dot the West Bank, gobbling up territory claimed by the Palestinians. The Palestinians say that further expansion makes it ever more difficult to establish a viable state that would not be broken up by Israeli enclaves.
Palestinian and Israeli officials currently are meeting with American leaders in the United States in an effort to salvage the negotiations.
The impending end to the construction curb has intensified tensions between settlers and Palestinians. Near the West Bank town of Nablus, settlers and Palestinians lobbed rocks at one another Tuesday after Palestinians accused settlers of trying to steal their olives.
The olive-harvesting season in the West Bank traditionally is a time of violence between the two sides.
The peace talks have also exacerbated tensions between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ West Bank government and the rival Islamic militant Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and opposes negotiations with Israel.
Palestinian police briefly detained a Hamas lawmaker Tuesday after he insinuated the West Bank government helped Israel kill a Hamas activist last week.
The lawmaker, former Cabinet minister Abdel-Rahman Zidan, was the highest-level Hamas official the Palestinian Authority has ever taken into custody.
Palestinian police surrounded the main West Bank headquarters of Hamas legislators in Ramallah several hours later and arrested several people there after Mr Zidan announced he would hold a news conference at the building. Police would not comment on the operation.
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.
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