Israel is ready to begin direct negotiations with the Palestinians, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Monday, adding that if the Palestinians were willing to open direct talks, Israel might turn over a key road in the north Jerusalem area.
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The road – which connects Ateret and Neveh Tzuf – would remain under Israeli security control but be under Palestinian civil control. The move would be meant to enable traffic between Ramallah and the planned city of Rawabi.
“We are weighing relaxing traffic [restrictions] in parallel with the opening of negotiations,” the prime minister told the committee. He added, however, that no final decision had yet been made.
“This is one of the trust-building steps about which I spoke with the Americans,” he explained.
Israel is ready to begin the direct talks with the Palestinian Authority as early as next Sunday, Netanyahu said, days in advance of Thursday’s Arab League meeting in Cairo. The Arab League is expected to determine whether or not the Palestinians should hold direct talks with Israel.
According to officials close to the prime minister, the statement was the first time that Netanyahu had offered a concrete timetable for Israel’s participation in direct talks.
Nevertheless, this did not mean the talks were in the offing, and in a possible sign that direct talks were not imminent, US envoy George Mitchell, who was expected in the region before the Arab League meeting, is no longer expected this week.
One diplomatic official said the reason Mitchell was not coming was a combination of “logistics and not having anything to talk about.” But Netanyahu’s statement does not necessarily bring the direct talks any closer.
In the course of the briefing, Netanyahu told MKs that the Palestinians did not actually want to hold direct talks and that they hoped the Arab League would block such talks. Netanyahu accused the PA of creating various obstacles so far in initiating talks.
First, he said, they cited the building freeze and later cited the issue of borders.
“If there was any doubt before that they were trying to avoid direct talks, now it is patently clear,” declared Netanyahu. “From our perspective, however, we are ready to go to direct talks as early as next week.”
Obama, the prime minister said, “knows that Israel is ready for and trying to arrive at negotiations.”
“There is no doubt that direct talks are desirable for Israel. It is only through direct talks that we can raise the important topics and demands regarding our critical security interests,” he said.
Netanyahu said the subject of maintaining Israel’s security as part of any final-status agreement had been a major topic during his recent visit to Washington and meetings with top US officials such as Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
“Security arrangements will be the first major section in any possible agreement with the Palestinians,” promised Netanyahu. “The security arrangements must stand in the event that there are changes to the political map of the Middle East, including the reopening of an eastern front similar to the one that developed prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein.”
He offered the example of Iran, which in a very short period went from being a close ally to a sworn enemy.
“We will not compromise on security,” asserted the premier, “and that is why I presented it as so crucial before the American government that we create a final status that will not be called into question by Iran and its satellites.”
Netanyahu did, however, warn that there were those seeking to harm the ability to enter any direct talks.
“It is clear that those who are systematically trying to harm the initiation of talks are those on the Palestinian side, as well as others both throughout the world and in Israel,” he said. “Unfortunately, not all of those elements are only outside of Israel, and I do not mean my colleagues within the coalition.”
The prime minister also stressed that Israel “is interested in renewing the peace negotiations with Syria,” but added that “there are different opinions as to whether the Syrians are serious in their intent to enter peace talks, or just acting to improve their international reputation.”
Netanyahu emphasized that “after [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s attack against [President Shimon] Peres at Davos, Turkey has changed its direction with regard to Israel and is not at the top of our preferences to serve as a third party in negotiations. Unfortunately, in the meantime, I do not see any practical steps by the Syrians to enter negotiations.”
Netanyahu also briefed MKs about the strengthening of America’s stance on Israel’s nuclear policy.
“There was a growing impression in the international community that the
American stance on this subject had shifted,” said Netanyahu. “It was
important to me for Obama to take a clear stand refuting that impression
and to reassert the US’s traditional stance on the subject. In the
course of my visit, he did so on camera, through a written statement
issued from the White House and also in the course of an intimate
Obama “said that there is no change in US policy on the subject,” the
prime minister added. “He recognized that Israel is in a unique state
because of its size, the threats against it, and its history, that
Israel holds a special and different status than other countries and
that it is clear that Israel must be capable of defending itself from
the combination of threats against it.”
The clarification of US policy, said Netanyahu “is a very important
development for Israel. If there were those in the international
community...who believed that the dials were turning against Israel, it
is now clear that the opposite is true.”