JERUSALEM — Israel will not compromise on security or recognition of a Jewish state, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told AFP as he prepares a peace initiative to pre-empt a Palestinian bid for UN recognition.
Speaking in an exclusive interview conducted just before the week-long Passover holiday, the Israeli leader confirmed he was working on details of an initiative which would be outlined in a speech before the US Congress.
But he was tight-lipped about the details of his proposal for breaking the deadlock in talks, accusing the Palestinians of using the settlements to notch up political capital at Israel's expense and to avoid engaging in negotiations.
For Israel's burly leader, negotiating a peace settlement comes down to two key issues on which he said he will not budge -- recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, and Israel's security alongside a future Palestinian state.
"The core of the conflict has always been the persistent refusal of the Palestinian leadership to recognise the Jewish state in any borders," he told AFP.
"That is why this conflict raged for nearly 50 years before 1967, before there was a single settlement in the West Bank," he said.
He questioned whether the Palestinians were serious about a two-state solution if they could not recognise Israel as a Jewish state.
"Why don't the Palestinians do something so simple as recognising the Jewish state? After all, we are prepared to recognise a Palestinian state. Why can't they reciprocate if they really want peace?" he asked.
"This explains the root cause of why you don't have peace."
Netanyahu said he would also insist that Israel maintain a military presence along the West Bank's border with Jordan under any peace deal, a term rejected by the Palestinians.
"We need a long-term Israeli presence along the Jordan border. We need a physical barrier to prevent penetration by Iran and its operatives," he said, warning that an international force would not likely remain there for long.
"When we pulled out of Gaza, we left a European force along the border with Egypt, who left shortly after Hamas took over," allowing Iran to penetrate easily through the southern border and fill the coastal enclave with weapons, he said.
Details of Netanyahu's peace plan remain elusive, with commentators and political officials suggesting it has yet to be firmed up, but few expect it will include any mention of a new freeze on settlement construction -- a key demand of the Palestinians for returning to the negotiating table.
"The settlements are an important issue which needs to be resolved in negotiations," Netanyahu said of ongoing Jewish construction on land occupied by Israel in 1967, an issue which for the Palestinians is one of the bitterest aspects of the decades-old conflict.
"But the settlements are a derivative issue, not the core of the conflict," he said.
Netanyahu stressed that two states was the only viable solution because the other alternative was a bi-national state -- an option he earlier this month said "would be disastrous for Israel."
But he said the only way for the Palestinians to achieve their promised state would be through negotiations -- an option he said they appeared to have given up on.
"The Palestinians think: Why should we negotiate? We can get a free pass from the international community. We can avoid negotiations and pin the blame on Israel," for not halting settlement building, he said.
Following the collapse of the talks, the Palestinians have been following a diplomatic strategy aimed at securing UN recognition for their state in a move expected to take place in September.
But Netanyahu said going to the United Nations was just a way of putting political pressure on Israel and would not help end the conflict.
"I am willing to negotiate right now -- is the Palestinian leadership willing to do that? No. Because they want to avoid the negotiations -- they want an imposed solution," he said.
"The only way to get a real solution is through negotiations and the only way to complete negotiations is to begin them."
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