Sunday 22 August 2010
In his first remarks to reporters since Israel and the Palestinians accepted on Friday an invitation by the United States and other powers to restart direct talks, Netanyahu said:
"We want to surprise all the critics and skeptics. But to do that, we need a true partner on the Palestinian side.
"I know there is deep skepticism. After 17 years have passed since the Oslo process, it's possible to understand why this skepticism exists," he said at the start of Israel's weekly cabinet meeting.
He made no mention of a potential stumbling block once the talks start in Washington on Sept. 2 — the scheduled end some three weeks later of Israel's 10-month limited moratorium on Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
"Achieving a peace agreement between us and the Palestinian Authority is difficult, but possible," he said.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said on Friday the Palestinians would pull out of the new talks if Netanyahu's government, which is dominated by pro-settler parties, announced new settlement construction.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Erekat said, sent a letter to that effect on Sunday to the Quartet of Middle East peace brokers — the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.
Palestinians say they fear the settlements Israel has built on land captured in a 1967 war will deny them a viable state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
Gaza is now under the control of Hamas Islamists opposed to the US-backed peace efforts.
The talks are the latest chapter in a peace process which, interrupted by several years of violence earlier this decade, has given Palestinians limited self-rule but no state.
The borders of the Palestinian state, the fate of Jewish settlements built on occupied land and the future of Jerusalem are among the tough issues that the negotiators will face and which past talks have failed to resolve.
Netanyahu has proposed a demilitarised Palestinian state, with Israeli forces on its eastern border. He has said the future of settlements and other core issues of the conflict can be raised in negotiations.
Netanyahu, who had pushed for a move from US-mediated "proximity talks" that began in May to face-to-face negotiations without preconditions, said reaching a peace deal would require both sides to take the "necessary steps."
He did not define them, and the term fell short of the pledge of "painful compromises" his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, voiced at the 2007 Annapolis Conference that launched Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that failed to achieve a deal.
Those negotiations were suspended before a Gaza war in 2008.
Netanyahu said he was coming to the Washington talks "with a real desire to reach a peace accord between the two peoples while preserving Israel's national interests, primarily security."
If the Palestinian side proved to be a peace partner, he said, "we can quickly achieve a historic peace agreement between the two peoples."
Speaking on Israeli Army Radio, Erekat said it was up to Netanyahu to prove that he wants peace.
"If he decides to continue the settlements on September 26, we are very sorry — negotiations cannot continue," Erekat said.