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Top Israeli aides scoff at peace talks move

Minister ridicules idea of peacemaking with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, after colleague's threat to quit coalition over Kerry plan for negotiations. Hugh Naylor reports from Ramallah

RAMALLAH // The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, yesterday cautiously welcomed the restart of peace talks with the Palestinians, while some of his key right-wing allies roundly mocked them as a waste of time.

After months of shuttling between Israelis and Palestinians, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, announced on Friday that the two sides would return to the negotiating table as soon as this week after a three-year hiatus.

Mr Netanyahu, during his weekly cabinet meeting yesterday, said he would enter negotiations "with integrity, sincerity and the hope that this process will be conducted responsibly, seriously and substantively", and insisted that any peace deal must ensure Israel's security.

He also said a single state made up of both Israelis and Palestinians was impossible and made such a deal necessary.

His goal, he said, was to stop "the creation of a binational state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, alongside preventing the establishment of another Iranian-sponsored terrorist state" - a reference to Tehran's support for Hamas and other Palestinian groups opposed to Israel's existence.

Mr Netanyahu's promise to put any peace agreement to a national referendum did not placate some members of his right-wing, pro-settler coalition, as well as those in his own Likud Beitenu party. They scoffed at negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

"There is no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least not in the coming years, and what's possible and important to do is conflict-management," the former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, wrote on his Facebook page yesterday.

Yisrael Katz, the transport minister, ridiculed the idea of peacemaking with Mr Abbas, and compared him to Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, who has lost control of large swathes of his country to rebel forces during a two-year civil war there.

Mr Abbas, Mr Katz said, "rules over Palestinians less than Assad rules in Syria".

"Just as no one would consider ceding any territory to Assad in the current situation, so certainly no one is thinking seriously of ceding territory to [the Palestinian president] at time when he doesn't completely rule over most of the Palestinian population," he said, alluding to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Last week, Naftali Bennett, the economy and commerce minister, threatened to withdraw his party, the Jewish Home, from the ruling coalition.

Mr Bennett said he would not accept as a starting point for negotiations the borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories hoped to form a Palestinian state.

Along with a freeze on constructing settler homes, using the 1967 lines as a basis for talks has been a key Palestinian demand for restarting peace negotiations.

The last round of negotiations collapsed in late 2010 because Mr Netanyahu refused to stop building settlements.

In a statement yesterday, Mr Bennett stopped short of threatening to leave the coalition but warned that "we will insist on continuing normal life and building" in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Still, Mr Netanyahu could receive a political lifeline if his political allies abandon his government.

Speaking to Israel Radio yesterday, the opposition leader, Shelly Yachimovich, who heads the centrist Labour party, said she could "reconsider entering the government" if that would sustain peace talks. "It is not because of us that peace will be lost," she said.

Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of Israel's Haaretz newspaper, wrote in an opinion article yesterday that renewed peace talks with the Palestinians give Mr Netanyahu "the chance of a lifetime".

The Israeli leader could cite as a reason to conclude a peace deal the European Union (EU) guidelines introduced last week that ban the bloc's agencies from direct or indirect funding of Jewish settlements, Mr Benn wrote.

"Finally he found an outside threat to justify the political risk," he wrote. "Now Netanyahu can say that he had no choice, that if he had insisted on zero gestures to the Palestinians Israel would be on its way to much worse isolation and boycott."


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Updated: July 22, 2013 04:00 AM