JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to deliver a major policy speech on Sunday that Western power-brokers hope will make a clear commitment to pursue peace with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s refusal to declare a building freeze in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and to endorse the goal of establishing a Palestinian state — both set out in a 2003 peace “road map” — has opened a rare rift in U.S.-Israeli relations.
Anxious to preserve the alliance but also beholden to his fractious and right-leaning governing coalition, Netanyahu has spoken of stop-gap proposals such as Palestinian self-government shorn of sovereign powers like the right to set up an army.
The Palestinians, having won limited autonomy under 1993 interim accords, insist on full statehood. Yet theirs is now a divided polity, with Hamas Islamists who reject coexistence with the Jewish state in control of the Gaza Strip since 2007.
U.S. President Barack Obama says containing Iran’s nuclear aspirations — which Israel considers a major threat — would be helped by progress toward a Palestine deal.
An Israeli official said Netanyahu was still putting final touches to the speech which would “present a vision of moving forward in the peace process with the Palestinians”. “In the framework of that, we want to see the Arab states play an increased role,” the official said. “The speech will acknowledge the road map and deal with the issue of statehood.”
Briefing counterparts in the so-called Quartet of Middle East mediators after talks with Netanyahu, U.S. officials this week were sceptical he would make the clear, far-reaching and tangible commitments on settlements or statehood Obama wants. “I don’t know what he wants to say but what I would like to hear … is that (Israel) will stop settlements and will resume negotiations with the Palestinians,” European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said during a West Bank visit.
Polls show Israeli opinion is divided, but one survey indicates voters have a more hard-nosed attitude to giving up land for a peace they are not sure they would have.
Tamar Hermann, a sociologist who has conducted a monthly “peace index” survey for years, said she found that until a month ago, between 60 and 75 percent of Israelis answered in surveys that they supported a two-state solution. But this month just 41 percent saw Palestinian statehood as a viable option, said Hermann, dean of Israel’s Open University.
Fewer Israelis say they are willing to yield the minimum Palestinians seek for a deal — the eventual dismantling of most Israeli settlements built in the occupied territory.
Hermann said 53 percent now oppose removing the enclaves. But pollster Rafi Smith finds that 55 percent of Israelis still support a two-state solution and 57 percent backed Obama’s call for a halt to settlement construction.. But a whopping 85 percent doubt the exercise will lead to eventual peace.
“The Israeli public has moved to the right because their concept of trust in the Arabs is very low. The problem is that we don’t trust the Arabs and they don’t trust us,” Smith said. “Israelis agree there should be two states, but don’t believe it will ever happen.”
U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s security forces have been cracking down on Hamas in the West Bank, where Israel has long demanded security assurances ahead of any territorial handovers to the Palestinians. But many Israelis regard the West Bank, captured from Jordan in a 1967 war, as a biblical Jewish birthright and the Netanyahu government intends to keep major settlement blocs under a peace accord — a plan Palestinians rule out as a non-starter.