TEL AVIV //The United States could recognise an independent Palestinian state within a year if peace talks are not resumed, a senior Israeli government minister said yesterday.
Benjamin Ben-Eliezer spoke as the Palestinian foreign ministry announced that Paraguay will recognise a sovereign Palestine next year.
Ecuador declared its recognition of Palestine on Saturday, following its neighbours Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia this month. European Union diplomats have expressed frustration with Israel's settlement expansion in territory Palestinians want for their future state, and some EU members are pushing for recognition.
Recent comments by officials in the US president Barack Obama's administration suggest that this option is not on the table, but Mr Ben-Eliezer insisted yesterday: "I would not be surprised if within a year the whole world will support a Palestinian state, including the United States. Then we will ask where we were and what we did."
He is the first senior Israeli official to raise the prospect that Washington, the mediator of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel's most powerful international ally, may grant support to the escalating Palestinian campaign to gain unilateral acceptance of their future state without first reaching agreement with Israel.
Mr Ben-Eliezer, Israel's industry, trade and labour minister and a veteran politician, is one of the Labour party's most senior members. His words appeared to be more than a veiled threat aimed at pressuring Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister and head of the predominantly pro-settler, right-wing government, to return to the negotiating table.
They were also the latest indication that Labour is undergoing an intense internal debate on whether to stay in the ruling coalition, of which it is the only centrist member, without progress in the peace process.
Without Labour, Mr Netanyahu would have only ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist parties as political partners, which may alienate Israel's allies in the West and further harm relations with Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab countries with which it is at peace.Mr Ben-Eliezer, speaking before the weekly Israeli cabinet meeting, also condemned the decision by Mr Netanyahu to reject the White House’s call for an extension of a partial settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israel’s 10-month construction moratorium ended on September 26, and its refusal to renew it for another three months has prompted a deadlock in peace talks. The Palestinians, who conducted three rounds of US-mediated direct negotiations with Israel in September, refused to return to the talks without a settlement freeze.
“We must do everything to reach a dialogue with the Palestinians, even if the price is a freeze for several months,” Mr Ben-Eliezer said.
His comments also reflect increasing Israeli concerns that Israel is again sliding into a cycle of worsening relations not only with the Palestinian Authority, which holds sway in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and has been Israel’s main Palestinian peace partner, but also with the Islamic group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.
Tensions have flared between the Israeli military and Hamas ahead of the second anniversary today of the start of Israel’s deadly three-week onslaught in the tiny seaside strip that killed about 1,400 Palestinians, including many civilians.
Yesterday, Israeli troops, backed by helicopter gunships, killed two Gaza men near the border that separates Gaza from Israel after claiming they were laying mines along the fence. Israel has killed at least seven Palestinians in the past week in clashes or air strikes and targeted training facilities and smuggling tunnels, as more than 29 mortar shells and rockets were fired at the country from Gaza.
Hamas has threatened to respond aggressively to Israeli attacks, although it has also suggested that it would stick to an unofficial ceasefire between the two sides.
On Saturday, a masked spokesman for the group’s armed wing, Al Qassam Brigades, who identified himself only as Abu Obeidah, said: “There is a truce in effect in the field. It is real if Israel stops its aggression and ends its siege. But if there is any Israeli aggression in the Gaza Strip, we will respond strongly.”
He also added that Hamas possessed a secret weapon against Israel but did not provide details. “Our weapons are few compared to the Israeli occupation, but we have something that will worry the occupation.”
Last week the Israeli army said a Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missile hit one of its tanks patrolling the Gaza border, in its first encounter with that type of weapon in the area.