Sunday, May 3, 2009

Israel Will Accept Palestinian State, Rejects Syria Peace Talks

The new Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu gave the strongest signal yet that it would accept a Palestinian state, while rejecting peace negotiations with Syria.

“We do want to see peace and do understand that long-term peace and stability will entail a two-state solution,” Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon said in an interview.

Israel will honor the previous government’s commitments and accept the internationally backed 2002 peace plan, or road map, which calls for the creation of a Palestinian state, Ayalon said, in the most explicit acceptance of Palestinian statehood since Netanyahu formed a government in March.

In an interview yesterday in his Jerusalem office, Ayalon, 53, said Iran is “vulnerable” and called for stronger sanctions against the country to halt its nuclear program. Iran’s links to Syria are “very, very worrisome,” he said.

“Under the present circumstances I think it would be ill- advised,” for Israel to hold talks with Syria, Ayalon said. “We would like to have assurances that at the end of the day the Syrians will stop supporting terror and also, no less importantly, the very radical regime in Tehran.”

Israel and Syria held Turkish-mediated, indirect talks last year that broke down after Israel launched a 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip. Talks in 2000 collapsed over terms under which Israel would return the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau it captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

Iran is “trying to derail” any progress toward peace, Ayalon said, by supporting the Gaza Strip-based Islamic militant Hamas movement and the Shiite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.

Netanyahu Skeptical

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday that the resumption of peace talks with Israel is dependent on its acceptance of a two-state solution.

“Our conditions and requests are within the context of a two state-solution, the halt of settlements and the demolition of homes,” Abbas said in a statement after meeting Jordan’s King Abdullah. Abbas will travel to Egypt and some Arab countries before visiting the U.S. for talks on May 28.

Netanyahu has so far stopped short of endorsing Palestinian statehood. He was skeptical of peace talks held with the Palestinians by his predecessor Ehud Olmert and has said he will focus on improving the Palestinian economy in the West Bank.

U.S. President Barack Obama has stepped up pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to accelerate the peace process and last month invited leaders of both sides and Egypt to separate talks in Washington. President Shimon Peres is scheduled to meet with Obama on May 5 and Netanyahu will visit Washington later this month.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is starting a four-day trip to Italy, France, the Czech Republic and Germany this week.

Public Relations Stunt

Ayalon’s comments about a two-state solution may be aimed at “laying the groundwork for Lieberman to have more pleasant conversations and preempt pressure on Netanyahu,” said Mark Heller, a principal research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

“The major objective is to make sure Israel is not held responsible for a failure to get a peace agreement,” he added.

Mahdi Abdul Hadi, head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, a Jerusalem-based research center, called the acceptance of the two-state solution a public relations stunt. “People should look at the real story on the ground and not be influenced by the public relations campaigns going on,” he said.

Israeli leaders travelling to Europe and Washington this month will focus as much on Iran as on the Palestinians. European Union governments are set to back Obama’s bid to engage Iran in dialogue, a draft EU statement said April 27.

‘Iran is Vulnerable’

Talks with Iran “shouldn’t be open-ended,” said Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. “The time should be measured by months and not years.”

Iran has defied three sets of United Nations sanctions against its nuclear-enrichment activities, denying Western suspicions that it’s seeking weapons capability. Iran says its nuclear program is meant to produce electricity.

“Iran, with all due respect, is a very vulnerable country, vulnerable economically, vulnerable socially, vulnerable politically,” Ayalon said. “So far they have been able to show their intransigence because they were not presented with a dilemma.

“Once a price is exacted from Iran for their intransigence and flagrant violations of all their obligations I believe that could change their mind.”

Ayalon, a member of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, says the Moldovan-born foreign minister could play a role in getting Russia to impose restrictions on Iran. “If Russia is on board, China will not stay behind,” he said.