(photo credit: AP)
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat appeared to soften his position Thursday but still rejected Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's call for explicit Palestinian recognition of Israel as "the Jewish state," saying he was baffled as to why Olmert wanted to "poke us in the eye" over the issue.
Asked by The Jerusalem Post whether he recognizes that the Jewish nation has historic rights here, Erekat said: "Israel has rights in the Middle East and the majority of Israelis are Jews. And when we recognized Israel, we recognized the composition of the state." Erekat had told an Arabic satellite TV interviewer earlier this week that the Palestinian Authority "will never acknowledge Israel's Jewish identity."
Erekat told the Post it was up to Israel to decide what to call itself, and that the Palestinians would recognize it accordingly. "Like the Islamic Republic of Iran," he said, "if you change your name to 'the Jewish state of Israel,' we'll call you that."
The road map and previous agreements had required the Palestinian leadership to unequivocally recognize Israel, Erekat said in a telephone interview. "We did it.... At the United Nations, you are called 'the state of Israel.' We recognize that."
Olmert has stated several times in recent days that there can be no negotiations with the Palestinians unless they acknowledge that Israel is the state of the Jewish people. "I don't know why he is raising this now," Erekat said. "To poke us in the eye?" He said the Palestinians were not imposing new preconditions for negotiation, and that Israel's move was akin to "me asking you to acknowledge Israeli responsibility for Palestinian suffering since 1897."
Plainly, he continued, Israel wanted the Palestinians "to accept your historical rights." Plainly, too, he said, the pressure related to the final-status issue of the fate of Palestinian refugees, whose "right of return" is demanded by the Palestinian leadership but whose massive influx into Israel would overwhelm Israel's Jewish majority and character.
The refugee issue, Erekat said, "must be negotiated by the parties" and "resolved in a just and agreed upon manner." Israel, he said, "cannot force us to accept terms."
Erekat speculated that Olmert had made the issue a priority ahead of the Annapolis talks for domestic political reason.
"Experience has shown that Israel often negotiates with itself," said Erekat, who is deeply involved in the negotiations on a joint statement of principles for the conference.
He added that he both hoped and believed the demand would be dropped. "Both sides should honor their obligations under the road map" peace plan, he said. The joint statement, he went on, would be "guided by the road map" rather than by Olmert's demand.
Well-placed sources told the Post on Wednesday that Olmert was confident that the joint statement would satisfactorily address the "Jewish Israel" recognition issue. But it is understood that the Israeli negotiating team is less confident about this.
Meanwhile Kadima, Labor and Israel Beiteinu ministers battled over credit for Olmert's decision to make the requirement a precondition for negotiations after the Annapolis summit.
Sources close to Labor chairman Ehud Barak said the condition was his idea. Barak's nemesis, Vice Premier Haim Ramon of Kadima, also took credit.
Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman said the idea originated in a letter that he wrote Olmert earlier this week. Lieberman requested a vote on the matter in next Monday's cabinet meeting and Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem submitted a bill that would bar all future governments from negotiating with the PA until it recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.
"Whoever refuses to recognize us as a Jewish state isn't worth talking to," Rotem said. "There is no reason for there to be a Palestinian state and a half when we won't be a Jewish state."
Both Lieberman and Shas chairman Eli Yishai said they would insist on the recognition becoming a precondition for negotiations, but their associates said they would not issue an ultimatum threatening to leave the government.
Labor ministers and MKs slammed Olmert for seeking a commitment from the Palestinians that he knew he could not receive. They accused him of giving into pressure from Lieberman; the ministers vowed to fight the decision in the cabinet on Monday.
"I don't accept any condition for starting dialogue," Minister-without-Portfolio Ami Ayalon said. "It's a fact that we are a Jewish and democratic state and it will remain a fact. Any final-status agreement will say this, but making it a precondition is unacceptable."
Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ghaleb Majadle added that "Israel is a Jewish state and it does not require external affirmation to prove its Jewishness. Any such request could only weaken the state."
Labor MK Ephraim Sneh said he had learned in meetings with Palestinian leaders that the proper wording could be found that would allow the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. But he said Olmert was making a mistake by insisting on it as a condition for negotiations.
"Labor decided three years ago that at the end of negotiations, the Palestinians would recognize Israel as a Jewish state when we recognize a Palestinian state as part of the declarations of the end of the conflict," Sneh said. "The difference between us and Olmert is that he is making it a condition to start the talks. It would be stupid if negotiations don't even begin because of this."
Ramon on Thursday explained why Israel attached so much importance to the recognition by the Palestinians of Israel as a Jewish state.
"The recognition is important because it is part of the Palestinian recognition that the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem is the return of the refugees to a Palestinian state," Ramon said.
"A Palestinian state is the solution for the Palestinian refugees, just like Israel was the solution for the Jewish refugee problem."
Mark Weiss contributed to this report.
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