by David Bedein
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last week welcomed the statement made by Palestinian Authority Chairman Machmud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, who called for a resumption of negotiations with Israel. "If Abu Mazen stands behind that offer, then that is a positive thing and we're talking about progress," Netanyahu said in a meeting with Israeli journalists in Berlin following his meeting with German President Horst Koehler during his visit to Germany.
"We have thought for a long time that there is reason to hold a meeting without reconditions and to begin taking steps that will bring about the promotion of the political process," Netanyahu added.
Netanyahu underscored, however, that without Palestinian recognition of Israel's Jewish character, it would be impossible to resolve the conflict.
"The root of the conflict isn't the settlements, the borders or one area or another," he said. "All of those issues will be raised for discussion and we are going to have to find solutions to them. The problem is the refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state."
However, judging by Abu Mazen's statements yesterday before the Palestinian parliament, the differences between the two parties are larger than the mere question of whether Israel is recognized as a Jewish state. While Abu Mazen voiced his willingness to renew negotiations, he underscored that the condition for renewal was a suspension of all construction in the settlements. Moreover, Abu Mazen said that the negotiations needed to be resumed from the point at which they broke off during Ehud Olmert's term in office.
"In talks with the Olmert government it was agreed that the borders of the Palestinian state would include the Gaza Strip in its entirety and the West Bank in its entirety, including Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and the River Jordan," claimed Abu Mazen in his speech. "When we return to negotiations we will begin them from those points and not from zero."
An official in Abu Mazen's office added his own statements.
"We want negotiations in order to reach a solution of two states, but we want to discuss a final status arrangement and not waste time as occurred in the past," he said.
Senior sources in Ramallah said that an agreement in principle has been reached for Abu Mazen to meet with Netanyahu in New York.
"Abu Mazen will meet with Netanyahu not in order to negotiate, but in order to establish the rules of the negotiations," said one Palestinian official.
Sources in Prime Minister Netanyahu's entourage said that no agreements have been reached on that matter yet. If Netanyahu and Abu Mazen do meet, in fact, that will be their fist meeting since Netanyahu assumed office as prime minister.
Prior to his departure for Germany, Netanyahu met in London with special US envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell. American officials said after the meeting that Israel had, in practice, agreed to a temporary construction freeze in Judea and Samaria, but that the parties remained divided over the duration of that construction moratorium. The United States has demanded that the freeze last for one year, whereas Israel has agreed to a freeze that will last a number of months. Another issue in contention pertains to Jerusalem. The Americans have demanded that Israel not build inside Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Israel has refused to make any such commitment.
Following the meeting, Netanyahu said that certain progress had been made in that meeting towards a renewal of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
"The discussions advanced us in the process, though a number of issues remain unresolved," the Prime Minister said upon his arrival in Berlin from London. "The intention is to advance while striking a balance between maintaining the settlers' basic needs of life and maintaining the basic conditions for launching the political process."
Netanyahu vehemently denied reports in the Arab and British media yesterday as if Israel were prepared to accept a six-month-long settlement construction freeze in exchange for an American commitment to intensify the sanctions against Iran.
Netanyahu met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday. At the center of their meeting will be the Iranian nuclear program and the German mediation efforts to bring about Gilad Shalit's release from captivity. Prior to Netanyahu's arrival in Berlin, Merkel said that she supported stiffening the sanctions against Iran, mainly in the realm of energy, in the event that Iran should refuse to meet the international community's demand that it suspend its uranium enrichment activities.
"The German political position on Iran is a firm and consistent position," said Netanyahu on the eve of his meeting with Merkel. "The volume of Germany's trade with Iran has dropped by approximately one-quarter, and we will welcome another significant cutback."
Despite optimism from Netanyahu and reports about a possible meeting with Abu Mazen, his party, Likud, is expressing displeasure over recent developments and plans to hold a meeting.
"The Americans are trying to create an imaginary partner for negotiations that does not want and is not capable of making peace with Israel," said MK Danny Danon yesterday and added: "The Middle East is not a Hollywood movie." He said, "Netanyahu's capitulation to American pressure on the subject of construction in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria will lead to further demands to make concessions, without our receiving anything in return from the Palestinian side."
MK Ophir Akunis, a former Netanyahu adviser, also said that he would oppose any agreement from the meeting on a construction freeze.
"There will be no construction freeze in Judea and Samaria and we won't stop the lives of the Israelis who live in the settlements," he said.
Along with the talk, preparations began yesterday to oppose a settlement construction freeze. MK Tzippi Hotovely convened the top leaders of Judea and Samaria for a meeting described as "initial preparation to counter the messages emerging from the prime minister's trip to Europe."
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