Israeli leader stays hard-line in talks

JERUSALEM — Israel’s prime minister on Monday said he is making a “real effort” to reach peace with the Palestinians, but vowed to maintain a hard-line stance in recently relaunched negotiations.

The tough positions laid out by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew jeers from opposition lawmakers, and the Palestinians, already wary of his intentions, questioned his commitment to peace.

Under heavy U.S. pressure, Israel and the Palestinians in July relaunched the first substantive peace talks in nearly five years. The talks have taken place in secrecy, and the sides have mostly remained quiet about their content. The negotiations are to stretch until April.

In a speech to parliament, Netanyahu gave no signs that any progress had been made and repeated a series of tough positions that he said he would never compromise. Among them: that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland and a pledge to hold a national referendum on any agreement.

“I will not give up on our national interests to get a nice headline in some newspaper or another or for applause from the international community,” he said. “Those pass quickly, but we need to keep our national interests forever and that is what we will do.”

The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, for their future state.

Netanyahu rejects a full withdrawal from the West Bank and says he will never relinquish control of east Jerusalem, home to sensitive religious sites. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

The Palestinians reject Netanyahu’s demands that Israel retain a security long-term presence in the West Bank. They also say that recognizing Israel as the Jewish state would harm the interests of Israel’s Arab minority as well as Palestinian refugees who claim lost properties in what is now Israel.

Arab lawmakers heckled Netanyahu as he spoke of the ancient Jewish connection to Israel. And in a rebuttal to the prime minister, opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich demanded some clarity from Netanyahu on his vision for peace.

“Tell us what is happening in talks with the Palestinians. Give us an update,” she said.

“Did you speak about the core issues? If not, what did you speak about? There are six months left,” she said, asking what the likelihood is of reaching a final deal.

The Palestinians refused to negotiate with Netanyahu for nearly five years, demanding that he halt construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. With Netanyahu refusing to stop the construction, the Palestinians reluctantly returned to the negotiating table under heavy American pressure, but remain deeply skeptical about the Israeli leader.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, accused Netanyahu of trying to torpedo the talks by “insisting that the Palestinians renounce their rights.”

“I think these are impossible conditions, and set in purpose to start a blame game, while he is destroying the negotiations, and pre-empting the outcome by making sure these talks will fail,” she said.


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