JERUSALEM // The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed the idea of establishing an independent Palestinian state beside Israel for the first time on Sunday, dramatically reversing himself in the face of US pressure but attaching conditions the Palestinians swiftly rejected. A week after President Barack Obama's address to the Muslim world, Mr Netanyahu said the Palestinian state would have to be unarmed and recognise Israel as the Jewish state - a condition amounting to Palestinian refugees giving up the goal of returning to Israel.
"I call on you, our Palestinian neighbours, and to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority: Let us begin peace negotiations immediately, without preconditions," he said, calling on the wider Arab world to work with him. "Let's make peace. I am willing to meet with you any time any place - in Damascus, Riyadh, Beirut and in Jerusalem." With those conditions, he said, he could accept "a demilitarised Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state".
Mr Netanyahu, in an address seen as his response to Mr Obama, he refused to heed the US call for an immediate freeze of construction on lands Palestinians claim for their future state. He also said the holy city of Jerusalem must remain under Israeli sovereignty. Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said the plan "closed the door" to negotiations. In Washington, the White House said Obama welcomed the speech as an "important step forward".
Mr Netanyahu's address had been eagerly anticipated in the wake of Obama's landmark speech to the Muslim world. The Palestinians demand all of the West Bank as part of a future state, with east Jerusalem as their capital. Israel captured both areas in the 1967 Middle East war. Mr Netanyahu, leader of the hardline Likud Party, has always resisted withdrawing from these lands, for both security and ideological reasons.
In his speech, he repeatedly made references to Judaism's connection to the biblical Land of Israel. "Our right to form our sovereign state here in the land of Israel stems from one simple fact. The Land of Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people," he said. But Mr Netanyahu also said that Israel must recognise that millions of Palestinians live in the West Bank, and continued control over these people is undesirable.
"In my vision, there are two free peoples living side by side each with each other, each with its own flag and national anthem," he said. Mr Netanyahu has said he fears the West Bank could follow the path of the Gaza Strip, which the Palestinians also claim for their future state. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and Hamas militants now control the area, often firing rockets into southern Israel.
"In any peace agreement, the territory under Palestinian control must be disarmed, with solid security guarantees for Israel," he said. "If we get this guarantee for demilitarisation and necessary security arrangements for Israel, and if the Palestinians recognise Israel as the state of the Jewish people, we will be willing in a real peace agreement to reach a solution of a demilitarised Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state."