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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu faced a counterweight to the pressure on him from Washington to agree to the formation of a Palestinian state when he met with Likud MKs at the Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday.
Every MK who spoke at the meeting pleaded with him not to utter the catchphrase "two states for two peoples" when he delivered his policy address on Sunday at Bar-Ilan University. The MKs reminded him of statements he made at a Likud central committee meeting in 2002, in which he warned against the dangers of even a demilitarized Palestinian state, and urged him, "Don't found a Palestinian state at Bar-Ilan."
Netanyahu declined to reveal the content of his speech to the MKs and spoke in only general terms. He denied statements from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that he had already decided to endorse the formation of a Palestinian state in the speech. But he did hint that he would use the threat of a nuclear Iran to justify additional steps to meet US President Barack Obama's demands.
"I will be considering a lot of challenges that come from different directions, [and] that will impact generations," Netanyahu told the MKs in the closed-door meeting. "There are strategic threats facing Israel that require us to balance them out."
At the same time that they were meeting in Jerusalem, Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin fiercely criticized the two-state solution in an address to veteran Likud activists at the party's Tel Aviv headquarters.
"There won't be a Palestinian state," Begin said emphatically. "The realities of the past 15 years gravely harmed the concept of two states for two peoples. The state they want is only intended to destroy Israel. The Palestinians are not interested in the two-state solution. They want the two-stage solution, after which there would be only one state: Palestine."
Recalling what Israel offered the Palestinians in Oslo, Camp David and most recently in former prime minister Ehud Olmert's talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Begin said "it is crazy to try the same thing that hasn't worked over and over again."
He quoted former PA prime minister Ahmed Qurei, who said in a recent interview that Abbas had rejected Olmert's offer of a Palestinian state in 98 percent of the West Bank plus a land swap of more than 2% of pre-1967 Israel, because "the gaps were too wide."
Begin said this was proof the Palestinians would never accept any deal.
He added that the Palestinians refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state because they intended to keep the Palestinian refugee issue alive after a Palestinian state was formed in order to destroy Israel from within.
Despite repeated attempts from the crowd, Begin refused to answer questions about Netanyahu or the content of his speech, or to insult Obama.
"America is our friend, and we have to persuade our friends when they are wrong," Begin said.
But fellow Likud MK Miri Regev did lash out at Obama at Netanyahu's meeting with his party members. She said Netanyahu had to correct Obama's mistakes in last Thursday's speech in Cairo, such as hinting that Israel had been formed because of the Holocaust, and not mentioning the Jews' ties to the Land of Israel going back to the time of Abraham.
Regev brought polls showing that Obama's support was falling in the US and that Americans wanted him to support Israel and not the Arabs.
"The American people understand what makes sense," Regev said. "Reach out to them and remind them of the result of our withdrawal from Gaza."
MK Danny Dannon, the most hawkish Likud MK, advised Netanyahu to mention a Palestinian entity instead of a state and to call for "development" and not "natural growth" in the West Bank, because he did not want America to start counting Jewish births in Judea and Samaria.
Deputy Negev and Galilee Development Minister Ayoub Kara added that Netanyahu must know that if he surrendered to pressure from the Left and accepted a Palestinian state, they would only attack him further for giving in to them.
The closest thing to an endorsement of a Palestinian state in the meeting came when dovish MK Carmel Shama told Netanyahu, "You are the leader, and you can say whatever you want in your speech."
Prior to Netanyahu's meeting with the MKs, Likud activists from Judea and Samaria came to the Knesset to lobby the party's legislators to oppose a Palestinian state.
Earlier at the Knesset, Defense Minister Ehud Barak called on Netanyahu to publicly embrace the road map and accept Obama's Middle East peace initiative.
Speaking to junior high school students at the parliament, Barak said that Labor had joined the coalition based on the understanding that Netanyahu was committed to previous agreements and would see it as his duty to promote the peace process.
He told the students that he hoped Netanyahu would say "things that will allow us to continue on the path laid down by Obama," during his speech.
"You know the government is made up of several parties. Our party, the Labor party, joined the government, among other reasons, because we agreed that this government would abide by all agreements made by previous governments," he said. "That's why we think we should clearly state that we commend President Obama's initiative, that we are committed to the road map and that we want two states for two peoples - all this without compromising on our security concerns."
Barak also referred to Obama's recent speech to the Arab world from Cairo.
"We may not like every word, and maybe if one of you or me had written it, we would have written it in a way which emphasizes our place here in Israel and in history," he said. "But it was still a speech made in Cairo and intended for the Arab world, and it was important because he still told them important things about our place here and about the need to abandon the path of violence and make peace."
Moving on to the Iranian nuclear issue, Barak said it was "a very serious threat, and all indicators show they are building a nuclear weapon. They are trying to hide it by saying they only want to build power plants. It is their right to claim this, but it is a bit of a funny claim when they have a lot of oil and produce some three million oil barrels a day. They hide their [nuclear] program behind a civilian program and that's why it's very hard to prove [they are building nuclear weapons].
"Now the Obama administration has said it wants to talk to the Iranians, try a 'good' approach, as they say. We can't tell them, 'Don't do it,' but we say we believe this dialogue should be short and to the point and that they shouldn't let the Iranians fool them and string them along," he continued. "When we [in Israel] said we were not taking any options off the table, it's like a hint that we are also considering other things, without talking about them, and we mean it. But because there are cameras and recording equipment here, I cannot say any more than that."
Jonathan Beck contributed to this report.