Israeli government sends mixed signals on peace

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Associated Press

Posted on March 18, 2013 at 3:32 PM

Updated Tuesday, Mar 19 at 1:34 AM

JERUSALEM (AP) — Ahead of the arrival of President Barack Obama on a high-profile Mideast mission, Israel's new government on Monday sent mixed messages about pursuing peace with the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech to parliament that his hand is outstretched in peace and that he is ready for a "historic compromise," but one of his closest allies called hopes for peace "delusional."

The conflicting signals gave a glimpse of the infighting that is likely to hinder the government if Netanyahu, who has historically been reluctant to make serious concessions to the Palestinians, decides to launch any new diplomatic initiatives.

"The rhetoric about peace is one thing and doing peace is something else. Doing peace requires deeds," Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said of the new Israeli government.

Well aware of the large gaps between the sides, Obama has been careful to lower expectations for the 48-hour visit, which begins Wednesday. The White House has already said he will not bring any bold new initiatives. He will leave the details of diplomacy to his secretary of state, John Kerry, who is expected in the region in the coming weeks.

Instead, Obama plans to meet separately with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in hopes of finding some common ground. Toward that goal, the White House confirmed Monday that the president has added a third, previously unscheduled meeting with Netanyahu on Thursday, immediately after returning from talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. There are no plans for the three to meet together.

Upon taking office in 2009, Obama vowed to make Mideast peace a top priority. But talks never got off the ground, and ultimately Obama turned his attention elsewhere.

The Palestinians have refused to negotiate while Israel continues to build in settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories where they hope to establish a state. Israel captured both areas in the 1967 Mideast war.

The Palestinians say construction in the areas, now inhabited by more than 500,000 Israelis, is a sign of bad faith. The Palestinians say the pre-1967 lines should be the basis for a future border.

Early in his term, Obama persuaded Israel to impose a partial freeze on settlement construction, allowing talks to resume briefly in late 2010, toward the end of the Israeli moratorium. Netanyahu refused to extend the freeze, and negotiations collapsed weeks later. A frustrated Obama later backed off his calls for a halt in settlement building, leaving the Palestinians disillusioned.

Netanyahu says negotiations should resume without preconditions.

Since winning re-election in January, Netanyahu has pledged to make a new push for peace.

"We extend our hand in peace to the Palestinians," Netanyahu said in Monday's speech, delivered shortly before his new Cabinet was sworn into office. "With a Palestinian partner that is willing to hold negotiations in good will, Israel will be ready for a historic compromise that will end the conflict with the Palestinians once and for all."

Netanyahu gave no details. The Palestinians have suggested he again halt settlement construction or release the longest-held Palestinian prisoners Israel is holding as a goodwill gesture.

Making any significant concession would be a struggle for Netanyahu. The coalition, stitched together during nearly six weeks of negotiations following a Jan. 22 parliamentary election, is focused more on domestic issues than peacemaking. And on the Palestinian issue, his partners include moderates and hard-liners who share little common ground.

On one hand, Netanyahu has appointed Tzipi Livni, a dovish former foreign minister who has good ties with the Palestinians, to be his chief negotiator. His largest coalition partner, Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid Party, has called for an aggressive attempt to reach peace.

In contrast, the pro-settler Jewish Home Party rejects any concessions to the Palestinians, and Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc itself is dominated by hard-liners. His new defense minister and housing minister, who each wield great influence over Israel's policies in the West Bank, are both sympathetic to the settlers.

Ahead of Netanyahu's speech, Avigdor Lieberman, a powerful ally of the prime minister and himself a West Bank settler, said anyone who thinks peace can be reached with the Palestinians is "delusional."

"This conflict cannot be solved. This conflict needs to be managed," he told his Yisrael Beitenu Party, an ultranationalist faction that has formed a joint parliamentary bloc with Netanyahu's Likud Party. Lieberman said he would fight any attempt to halt settlement construction.

Considering this recipe for deadlock, the Palestinians have shown no optimism over the new Israeli government.

"This is a government of political paralysis. It's also the government that has given the settlers enormous powers," said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official.

The Israeli election focused heavily on domestic issues, such as the high cost of living and calls to end a contentious system that has allowed ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students to be exempt from compulsory military service.

Addressing his party Monday, Lapid made no mention of the Palestinians, appealing to the ultra-Orthodox to work with him on draft reform.

Netanyahu said that while there is a "golden moment" to deal with domestic issues, his first concern was to protect Israel. He listed a number of security threats to Israel, including Iran's suspect nuclear program, instability in neighboring Egypt, the civil war to Israel's north in Syria and the threat of sophisticated weapons reaching the hands of violent anti-Israel groups.

Zahava Gal-On, leader of the dovish opposition party Meretz, said Jewish settlers were the "big winners" of the election.

"The next government will not make peace, will not narrow social gaps, will not concern itself with equality for all citizens of the state. The next government will continue to do much for the settlers and little for the rest of the Israeli public," she said.

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Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed.

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