Appearing before Jewish leaders in New York a day after he met with President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated what he has rarely mentioned in more than a year — his commitment to a two-state solution, a pledge he first made in June 2009.
In his Wednesday evening address the Israeli leader also made an off-the-cuff remark about Jerusalem that may have suggested a greater flexibility on his part than many have assumed. But his speech included not a word about Jewish settlements on the West Bank, a key sticking point between the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as a source of tension in recent months between Jerusalem and Washington.
In “a very good meeting” that lasted 79 minutes, Netanyahu said, he and Obama discussed “our quest for peace with the Palestinians.” And during that meeting, he added, “I outlined my vision of a demilitarized Palestinian state” that would recognize “the Jewish state.”
Netanyahu first committed himself to that goal in a nationally televised address, raising hopes among some that the Likud leader was dropping his longtime opposition to the concept. But he made the pledge only after pressure from Washington and has hardly mentioned it since, at least publicly. In their comments to reporters after Tuesday’s meeting, Obama spoke of a two-state solution, but Netanyahu, once again, neglected to do so.
But at Wednesday’s gathering, sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Netanyahu said Israelis didn’t want to rule over another people. At the same time, he added, they don’t want the Palestinians to be in a position where they could threaten the Jewish state.
Previous Israel withdrawals have resulted in Palestinian territory serving as “proxies” for Iran and launching pads for rockets and terrorist attacks, according to Netanyahu.
“The problem we face is to make sure that doesn’t repeat itself,” he said. Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon was “step one,” its evacuation from Gaza was “step two,” and the country “cannot afford step 3.”
In his remark about Jerusalem, made in response to a question from the audience, the Israeli leader said, “Everyone knows that there are Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that under any peace plan will remain where they are.”
That implied that other neighborhoods of Jerusalem may not remain “where they are” and could become part of an eventual Palestinian state, Uriel Hellman of the JTA reported. The JTA interpreted the remark as “a hint that that his government’s insistence on Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem might not be ironclad.”
In his speech, which drew a number of current and former elected officials, Netanyahu renewed his call for direct negotiations with the Palestinians rather than the American-brokered “proximity talks” that began in May. That call was endorsed Tuesday by Obama, who said that moving from indirect to direct talks would give the prime minister greater leeway when it comes to domestic politics.
The White House meeting represented a markedly different tone in the administration’s approach to the Netanyahu government — one in which the administration is now using carrots, instead of sticks, to push the prime minister into negotiations that will require difficult, politically explosive decisions. But hanging over that calculation is the question of Israel’s moratorium on new construction in the settlements, which is due to expire in September.
The Palestinians have so turned down direct talks, saying that Netanyahu must decide between peace and settlements, and an Israeli refusal to renew the 10-month freeze could chill relations once again between Israel and the United States.
The prime minister, though, has sidestepped questions on whether he plans to extend the freeze, and his speech Wednesday night included no reference to the settlements.