Netanyahu in Eilat 248 88.
(photo credit: GPO)
Five days after the security cabinet approved a moratorium on new housing starts in the West Bank to induce the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Sunday that he was not sure the Palestinian Authority or its leader were interested in a diplomatic process.
"It is impossible to solve the conflict if you do not sit around the negotiating table. There is no other way to do it," Netanyahu said at a speech in Eilat to mark the 29th of November, the day when the UN approved the partition plan in 1947.
"A strategic decision has to be made," Netanyahu told a gathering of journalists. "Are we entering a process, or are we not entering a process? We are willing to enter into a process. So far it remains unclear whether the Palestinian Authority and its leaders are willing to enter into a process."
Netanyahu said that the Palestinians - who until now have refused to negotiate with him because he will not declare a complete settlement freeze - needed to decide to enter the talks "because only if you start them, can you finish them."
The prime minister characterized the government's housing-start moratorium as an "extraordinary step" taken in an attempt to renew negotiations.
"I think it is clear to anyone observing objectively, anyone who looks at the facts, that Israel wants peace," he said. "I do not see the same willingness or determination yet on the Palestinian side. I see other signs. I see all kinds of pre-conditions not to carry out negotiations. I see legal steps being taken at the international court to advance the Goldstone Report."
Netanyahu said the Palestinians were "piling on all kinds of difficulties," but "you cannot reach peace if the horizon constantly recedes."
"You can't say that Israel doesn't want peace, or that the government doesn't want peace, or that the prime minister doesn't want peace, but that 'we the Palestinians' want peace," Netanyahu said, dismissing what he said were stereotypes. "The truth looks completely different to anyone who examines the facts."
Netanyahu reacted with indifference to growing opposition in his Likud Party to his decision to impose a 10-month moratorium on construction in Judea and Samaria.
Netanyahu's nemesis, Vice Premier Silvan Shalom, added his voice to three other Likud ministers who oppose the plan, making a total of 10 opponents among ministers in Shas, Likud, Israel Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi. Shalom criticized Netanyahu for preventing ministers from debating the freeze in the cabinet.
Shalom said the freeze was unnecessary and would not restart negotiations with the Palestinians. He warned that the Palestinian leadership would pocket the freeze in the West Bank and then insist on expanding it to all of Jerusalem.
"The Palestinians will only ask for more and more concessions," Shalom said. "Harming the settlements will have negative implications for the country's future. Such a serious decision requires public and internal debate, and I hope that will happen in the near future."
Senior Likud officials mocked Shalom, saying that if Netanyahu had agreed to include him in the inner cabinet, he would not have opposed the freeze. They noted that right-wing ministers Moshe Ya'alon and Bennie Begin backed the freeze, because they were aware of all the factors that went into it and saw the big picture.
"Netanyahu is worried about Iran, the Goldstone Report and his relationship with the United States," a source close to the prime minister said. "He's not worried about the fate of his coalition or his party. There won't be a rebellion, a split or any drama of that nature."
Likud MK Danny Danon submitted 600 signatures of Likud Central Committee members on Sunday morning to Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, the committee's chairman. Kahlon responded that he would recommend to Netanyahu that he convene the committee.
After stating emphatically on Saturday night that Netanyahu would not let the committee discuss the freeze, the prime minister's associates said on Sunday that he might allow a debate on the issue, but not a vote. They said he would make a formal decision on the matter as early as Tuesday.
Danon said he would insist on a secret ballot in the committee vote on a decision opposing a freeze. He expressed satisfaction that his campaign against the freeze had been joined by Likud ministers Gilad Erdan and Kahlon, in addition to Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein, who slammed the freeze last week.
Netanyahu reached out to Edelstein, Erdan and Kahlon by asking Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser to work with them on building a framework to help the settlers deal with the impact of the freeze.
Erdan said the freeze "harmed the human rights" of the residents of Judea and Samaria.
"I understand the impact of Iran and the United States on Netanyahu's decision to freeze construction, but I don't understand why he is letting the freeze get implemented by Barak, who has a political agenda against the settlements," Erdan said.
Netanyahu also faced criticism on Sunday from Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz, who said it was wrong to freeze construction in the settlement blocs, which Israel would keep in any final-status agreement with the Palestinians. Mofaz is set to outline his diplomatic plan in Monday's Kadima faction meeting.
"The blocs must be treated differently than isolated outposts," Mofaz said. "Never before did we freeze the places that are in the national consensus. This allows our right to places that are in our national interests to be questioned."