Jerusalem — Israel’s prime minister on Sunday proposed nonstop, face-to-face talks with the Palestinian president until a peace agreement is reached — offering a possible way to advance talks that have stalled over the construction of Jewish settlements.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal offers the appeal of leaders working together to make history, and it comes in response to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ latest claim — made over the weekend in South America — that genuine talks could yield a deal within months. But the Palestinians showed little enthusiasm for Netanyahu’s offer.
Reached by The Associated Press in Brazil on Sunday, Abbas reiterated his call for a settlement freeze. “If he does so, we can reach an agreement not in six months, but in two months,” he said.
Abbas’ chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Netanyahu’s offer amounted to little more than an empty declaration. He called on the Israeli leader to spell out a vision of peace, and specifically to commit to a near-complete withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
In his comments Sunday, Netanyahu urged the Palestinians to turn their focus away from settlements and instead work with him on the broader issues needed to reach a final peace deal.
He said he was ready to sit with Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, for “continuous direct one-on-one negotiations until white smoke is wafting,” an allusion to the Vatican’s custom for announcing a new pope.
“If Abu Mazen agrees to my proposal of directly discussing all the core issues, we will know very quickly if we can reach an agreement,” he said.
Netanyahu did not spell out details, but his new approach would be based on the idea that all the outstanding issues would be on the table, as opposed to the Palestinian approach of demanding a settlement freeze and general agreement on borders before talks resume.
President Barack Obama has made Mideast peace a top priority, personally launching the latest round of negotiations at the White House in early September and pledging to forge a deal within a year. But the U.S.-brokered talks broke down just three weeks later with the expiration of a limited Israeli freeze on settlement construction.
Netanyahu grudgingly accepted the principle of a Palestinian right to statehood only two years ago, and the past months’ diplomatic difficulties have deepened the Palestinians’ distrust. Appearing to despair of restarting talks, they have embarked on a parallel track of seeking recognition by world governments for a Palestinian state even without Israeli agreement.