Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that Israel must have a presence in the West Bank to stop rockets from being imported even after a peace agreement is achieved — the first time such a demand has been spelled out.
He said the experience of rocket attacks from the Lebanese and Gaza borders means Israel must be able to prevent such weapons from being brought into any future Palestinian state in the West Bank.
"We cannot afford to have that across from the center of our country," he told foreign reporters in Jerusalem.
"In the case of a future settlement with the Palestinians, this will require an Israeli presence on the eastern side of a prospective Palestinian state," he said, without elaborating.
That Netanyahu now speaks openly about Palestinian statehood is noteworthy in itself, even if he saddles the talk with caveats. The hard-line prime minister who leads a coalition largely opposed to territorial compromise had long hesitated to accept the concept of Palestinian statehood, capitulating only last June under heavy U.S. pressure.
Netanyahu has not outlined how much, if any, of the West Bank he would be willing to give up.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat rejected Netanyahu's call for an Israeli presence in a future Palestinian state. Palestinians want to create an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem with no Israeli presence, military or civilian.
"Once again Netanyahu asks for dictation, not negotiations," Erekat said.
Under the current situation, Israel is in overall control of the West Bank and its borders, though the Palestinian Authority patrols main population centers. Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but retains control of that territory's borders and air space.
As for Jerusalem, Israel annexed the traditionally Arab eastern sector of the city after capturing it from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war, and Netanyahu has said the city's status is not up for negotiation, even though the Palestinians have earmarked east Jerusalem for their future capital.
Netanyahu on Wednesday repeated his call for an immediate resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which Palestinians insist cannot take place until Israel freezes all settlement construction on lands they claim for their state.
The Israeli leader rejected that condition, saying his government had taken significant steps to slow settlement construction and ease conditions for Palestinians.
"Palestinians have climbed up a tree," Netanyahu said. "People bring ladders to them, we bring ladders to them. The higher the ladders, the higher they're climbing."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has proposed that the Obama administration negotiate the final borders of a Palestinian state with Israel, a Palestinian official said Wednesday, as a U.S. envoy headed to the region for another attempt to restart Mideast peace talks.
Such a proxy arrangement could provide a way around the current deadlock over reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks, which broke off more than a year ago.
As an alternative, U.S. officials could replace Palestinian negotiators in border talks with Israel, said an Abbas aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the content of internal meetings. The U.S. negotiators would be given clear parameters, the aide said.
Abbas made the proposal in recent meetings with Egyptian officials who passed the idea along to Washington, the aide said. It was not clear how the Americans reacted.
Officials at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, which serves the West Bank, had no comment.
Netanyahu did not refer to the proposal at his Wednesday news conference.
Abbas is expected to discuss his proposal with Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, who was to arrive in Israel later Wednesday. Mitchell is to hold separate talks with Netanyahu and Abbas on Thursday and Friday.
At the news conference, Netanyahu also appealed for tough international sanctions against Iran. He said there is "wide acceptance" of Israel's view that Iran poses a strategic threat because of its nuclear program.
"The question is, is there a willingness to act. We will soon find out," he said.
Netanyahu did not refer to the possibility that Israel or others might attack Iran militarily. Iran has insisted that its nuclear program is peaceful, but Israel, the U.S. and others suspect that Iran is constructing nuclear weapons.
Additional reporting by Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank.
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