The Palestinian Authority and Hamas rejected over the weekend Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people as a precondition for resuming the stalled peace talks between the two sides.
Netanyahu made the demand during a meeting last Thursday with US special Middle East envoy George Mitchell.
Mitchell met on Friday in Ramallah with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and other top PA officials, who urged him to pressure the new Israeli government to accept the two-state solution and honor all agreements signed with Israel as a precondition for resuming the peace talks.
Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat said that the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state was "an admission by the Israeli prime minister that he cannot deliver on peace." Erekat pointed out that the PLO had already recognized Israel's right to exist when it signed the Oslo Accords, while Netanyahu was refusing to mention a Palestinian state.
Azzam al-Ahmed, a senior Fatah official closely associated with Abbas, said on Saturday that the Palestinians would not return to the negotiating table until Netanyahu publicly accepted the two-state solution.
"We reject Netanyahu's demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state," he said. "This demand illustrates the racist nature of Israel and the extremist policies of its government. It also shows that Israel is not serious about making peace with its neighbors."
Ahmed also said that the PA would not resume the peace talks until Israel halted all settlement activity in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The new Israeli government, he added, is anti-peace and does not accept the previous agreements and understandings with the Palestinians.
"Therefore, we call on the international community to assume its responsibilities and exert pressure on the Israeli government to pursue the path of peace instead of talking only about strengthening the economy," Ahmed said.
Omar al-Ghul, an adviser to PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, said that Netanyahu's demand was aimed at transferring the Palestinians to another country.
"No Palestinian leader can ever accept this demand even if the whole world recognizes Israel as a Jewish state," he stressed. "The state of Israel belongs to all its citizens, the Palestinians owners of the land and the Jews living there."
Hafez Barghouti, editor of the PA's daily mouthpiece, Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda, said that Netanyahu's demand was aimed at expelling the Arab citizens of Israel and turning Jerusalem into a Jewish city.
"Netanyahu wants to replace the Palestinian kaffiyeh with a Jewish kippa," Barghouti said. "This is an irrational and absurd request. No country in the world has ever demanded that it be recognized on the basis of its religion and not political entity."
Barghouti added that by making the new demand, Netanyahu was "reigniting a religious conflict and providing fuel to radical Islamic and Jewish groups."
Hamas also rejected the demand, calling it a "dangerous idea" and warning the PA leadership against accepting it.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said that accepting the demand was tantamount to legitimizing the "radical terrorist Zionist entity."
He said that the Palestinians and Arabs must respond to Netanyahu by suspending all forms of contact with the Israeli government, including security coordination between the PA and Israel.
"It raises questions as to their seriousness for a historic reconciliation," said an Israeli diplomatic official in response to the statements rejecting Netanyahu's demand. "Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is a vital element in any process of reconciliation."
In Cairo, Mitchell met on Saturday with President Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and reiterated the commitment of the Obama administration to the two-state solution.
The US envoy said that Egypt was vital for achieving peace in the region.
"We believe that a comprehensive Middle East peace is not only in the interest of the people of the Middle East, the Palestinians, and Israelis and Egyptians, but it is also in the national interest of the United States and people around the world," he told reporters after the meeting.
"The president believes and I believe that a comprehensive peace in the Middle East will be possible only as a result of the leadership of Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak and the whole [Egyptian] government."
Mitchell's next stop in his Mideast tour is Saudi Arabia.
Tovah Lazaroff and AP contributed to this report