JERUSALEM -- Israel’s prime minister gave a cool reception Wednesday to a new Arab Mideast peace initiative, saying the conflict with the Palestinians isn’t about territory, but rather the Palestinians’ refusal to recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland.
The remarks signaled trouble for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s new push for Mideast peace and risked reinforcing Benjamin Netanyahu’s image as a hard-liner unwilling to make the tough concessions required for peace.
Netanyahu has not commented directly on the Arab League’s latest initiative, but his words questioned its central tenet -- the exchange of captured land for peace -- and appeared to counter a modified peace proposal from the Arab world that Washington and Netanyahu’s own chief negotiator have welcomed.
The original 2002 Arab initiative offered a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Muslim world in exchange for a withdrawal from all territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Sweetening the offer this week, the Arab sponsor said final borders could be drawn through mutually agreed land swaps.
Netanyahu questioned the premise that borders are the key.
"The root of the conflict isn’t territorial. It began way before 1967," he told Israeli diplomats. "The Palestinians’ failure to accept the state of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people is the root of the conflict. If we reach a peace agreement, I want to know that the conflict won’t continue -- that the Palestinians won’t come later with more demands.
The Palestinians have rejected Netanyahu’s demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, saying that would undermine the rights of Israel’s Arab minority as well as millions of refugees whose families lost properties during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948. The fate of the refugees is a core issue that would need to be resolved in a final peace deal.
After meeting U.S. congressmen Wednesday, Netanyahu said he appreciated the efforts of President Barack Obama and Kerry to restart negotiations but said that for talks to succeed, the Palestinians must also guarantee solid security arrangements. "We’re prepared to discuss many things, but I will never compromise on Israel’s security," he said.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani tried to allay some of the Israeli concerns as he presented the offer on Monday.
Speaking on behalf of an Arab League delegation, he reiterated the need to base an agreement between Israel and a future Palestine on the 1967 lines, but for the first time, he cited the possibility of "comparable," mutually agreed and "minor" land swaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The sides were reportedly close to an agreement based on these guidelines during the last serious round of talks in 2008 but the talks failed. Swaps of territory were also a basis for a failed summit in the U.S. in 2000.
Negotiations have largely been frozen since 2008, and the new U.S. administration has been trying to get the peace talks back on track.
As part of his effort, Kerry has been pushing Arab leaders to embrace a modified version of the Arab peace plan. The changes are meant to win Israeli support by allowing it to keep parts of the West Bank and east Jerusalem as part of an agreement.
Though Netanyahu’s office has remained silent on the modified Arab proposal, his chief peace negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, has welcomed it, as have Israel’s president and the main opposition parties. However, Netanyahu’s own political base and one of his main government coalition partners are either opposed to giving up land or suspicious of the Arabs’ motivations.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a rival of Netanyahu, said the initiative disproves the belief held by many in Israel that "there is no one to speak to."
"We cannot, under any circumstances, again be the ones that express doubts about a process that can lead to negotiations," Olmert told Israel’s Channel 10 TV, urging Netanyahu to capitalize on "a historic opportunity."
Opposition Israeli lawmakers also urged Netanyahu to embrace the new Arab outreach.
"It was bad enough that we ignored it once. Ignoring it now ... after everything that is happening in the Arab world, I think it would be a very, very big mistake," said Merav Michaeli, a lawmaker from the centrist Labor Party. She said if Netanyahu does not respond, it would show that he does not want a peace accord.
Kerry called the new peace plan a "very big step forward," though Palestinian officials have been cool to the concept, insisting that negotiations still need start with the 1967 lines.
The original 2002 Arab peace initiative offered Israel peace with the entire Muslim world in exchange for a "complete withdrawal" from territories captured in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, all seized by Israel in 1967, for their future state. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
Though the latest proposal appears aimed at the Palestinians, the original formula refers to other territories as well. Israel also captured the Sinai from Egypt and Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war, withdrawing from Sinai in 1982. Peace talks between Israel and Syria over the fate of the Golan failed more than a decade ago.