LONDON – The settlements are a territorial issue that can be resolved in negotiations with the Palestinians, but the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the national home of the Jewish people is the core problem preventing a peace agreement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in their talks on Tuesday, in part of an effort to reframe how world leaders view the conflict.
The settlements are not the cause of the Israeli-Arab conflict, but the result of it, Netanyahu told Brown, pointing out that the conflict long predated the settlements.
Netanyahu, in a briefing with Israeli reporters following his meeting with Brown, said this was a message that he would bring with him to Berlin and his talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well, and a “truth” that his government would repeat until it started to “trickle down.”
Netanyahu’s comments came just hours before Wednesday morning’s meeting in his London hotel, the Intercontinental, with U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell during which the settlements, much more than Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish homeland, are expected to be the focus of discussion.
“What we are trying to achieve with the U.S.,” Netanyahu said at his press conference with Brown, “is to find a bridging formula to enable us to launch the process, but enable those [Jewish] residents [of Judea and Samaria to] continue to lead normal lives.”
There were 250,000 Jews beyond the Green Line who “have children who go to school, they need classrooms, kindergartens, they need a place to house families,” the prime minister said.
“This is very different from grabbing land. I made clear that we are not going to expropriate new land.”
He was, however, extremely careful about divulging any details about the emerging “bridging formula,” with one senior source in his office saying that the talks were at an extremely delicate stage, and any leak could torpedo progress.
Netanyahu stressed in his press conference that Jerusalem was not to be lumped together with the settlements.
“I made it clear in my conversations with President Obama in Washington that Jerusalem is the sovereign capital of Israel, and we accept no limitations on our sovereignty,” he said.
The question of settlements, as well as Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state and the demilitarization arrangements for a future Palestinian state needed to be dealt with in negotiations, Netanyahu said.
“Jerusalem is the united capital of the Jewish people,” and has been that way for 3,000 years, he said.
The prime minister, whom Brown called a “courageous leader” when he opened the press conference, said that courageous leadership was now needed from the Palestinians.
“We are working hard to advance a peace process that will lead to an actual peace result,” Netanyahu said, in a jab at previous diplomatic processes that led nowhere.
“We hope to move forward in the weeks and months ahead, and we are not waiting, we have already moved,” he said.
He noted that in his first four months of power, his government had removed 147 checkpoints and roadblocks, extended operating hours at the Allenby Bridge between Israel and Jordan, and removed bureaucratic barriers to Palestinian economic activity.
Likewise, he said, he had called for the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state next to a Jewish state.
“It wasn’t easy, but this is what we have done in this short period of time,” he said.
He said that Israel expected similar movement from the Palestinian Authority, but instead has been met by additional conditions to negotiations, and problematic rhetoric at the recent Fatah convention in Bethlehem. According to Netanyahu, the Palestinians have not moved forward, but rather backward.
“There has to be not merely a partner on the other side, but a courageous partner, who can show fortitude and leadership,” he said.
“They have to say unequivocally, it [the conflict] is over. We are going to make real peace, a final peace, a peace that will end all claims to further conflict,” he said.
Netanyahu said a number of bilateral issues came up in his talks with Brown, including the need for British legislation that would put an end to efforts to charge IDF officers for war crimes in Britain, as well as what could be done to stem the wave of “boycott Israel” calls inside the country.
As Netanyahu was meeting with Brown at 10 Downing Street, a small group of vocal protesters outside shouted epithets at Netanyahu and Israel, with one holding up a sign reading that boycotting Israel was “kosher.”
Netanyahu would not say whether he discussed with Brown the British government funding of nongovernmental organizations, such as Breaking the Silence, that are very critical of Israeli government positions, saying only that he felt such intervention was inappropriate.
He said he did not, however, know of any proposed Knesset legislation to ban foreign government support for these organizations.
Netanyahu also said nothing about kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, and when asked what he though of Scotland’s release of the terrorist responsible for the Lockerbie terrorist attack that killed 270 people, he chose his words very carefully and would say only that the issue was “complex” and “complicated.”
Following his meeting with Mitchell in London on Wednesday, Netanyahu will fly to Germany for a day of talks there. He is scheduled to return to Israel early on Friday morning. Schalit is expected to be a major topic of conversation in Berlin.