Peace prospects bleak for Netanyahu U.S. visit

JERUSALEM Wed May 18, 2011 2:37pm EDT

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen during a news conference at his Jerusalem office May 18, 2011. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen during a news conference at his Jerusalem office May 18, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu goes to Washington on Friday to rally opposition to a Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition of statehood.

There is little indication the right-wing leader will, or can, offer new peacemaking ideas to persuade Palestinians not to take a detour at the U.N. General Assembly in September around the brick wall that the U.S. peace efforts have run into.

A unity deal between Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement and the Islamist group Hamas has further dampened chances of a breakthrough. The accord signed this month, dealt a "tremendous blow" to peace, Netanyahu said.

In the run-up to the five-day visit, which begins with talks with President Barack Obama on Friday, Netanyahu made clear he would not negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, whose founding charter calls for Israel's destruction.

Adding to a cloudy outlook, aides to Obama, who have watched an "Arab spring" blossom and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations freeze soon after they resumed eight months ago, said the president had no plans to roll out a new initiative.

On Wednesday, Abbas told U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg in the West Bank that he was ready to resume talks if Israel abides by its peace "road map" commitments that include a halt to settlement building.

Palestinians quit the talks in September after Israel refused to extend a 10-month freeze on building in West Bank settlements, and there is no indication Netanyahu is ready to announce a new freeze.

The U.S. capital will be Netanyahu's latest stop, after visits to Germany, France, Britain and the Czech Republic, in a diplomatic push against unilateral Palestinian steps to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

He will meet Obama, who opposes the Palestinians' U.N. move, on the morning after the president delivers a speech on the Middle East that is widely expected to focus on the political upheaval sweeping the Arab world.

Speaking on Tuesday, Obama said: "Despite the many changes -- or perhaps because of the many changes that are taking place in the region -- it's more vital than ever that both Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get back to the table."

Netanyahu has voiced concern over the Arab unrest, which has overthrown leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, saying it could bolster Iran's influence in the region as it pursues a nuclear program that Israel calls a threat to its existence.

Iran denies Western accusations it seeks nuclear weapons and says its program has only peaceful civilian aims.

POLITICAL RISK

Putting pressure on Netanyahu, who will address the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC on Monday and a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday at the invitation of his Republican supporters, could be politically risky for Obama as he seeks re-election in 2012.

Obama has already had strained relations with Netanyahu over Israeli settlement building, cited by Palestinians as the reason they abandoned the peace talks. He will make his own speech on Sunday to AIPAC's annual assembly, a forum where U.S. politicians usually voice strong support for Israel.

"(Netanyahu) will tell the world, 'why are you rushing (to recognize a Palestinian state) in September, when you won't know until January what (Palestinian) government will be elected,'" Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, a member of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, said on Wednesday.

Israel says its critics have an "automatic majority" in the United Nations General Assembly and a statehood vote would pass easily, though it is trying to persuade key players to oppose the move.

While Israeli military occupation of the West Bank would continue after the vote, Abbas said this week that U.N. recognition would pave the way for Palestinians to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations and the World Court.

In a speech to parliament on Monday widely seen as a dress rehearsal for his Congressional address, Netanyahu hinted at flexibility on territorial issues should the Palestinians drop their rejection of his opening demands -- primarily a call to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.

He spoke of "painful concessions" involving "tracts of our homeland," a reference to the occupied West Bank to which many settlers stake a Biblical right.

Angering Likud legislators and settler leaders, Netanyahu also said Israel would retain settlement blocs in any future peace deal -- seeming to signal he was prepared for smaller, isolated settlements to go.

Some political commentators were skeptical, saying the comments, which Netanyahu said reflected a broad, national consensus, were a tactical move to avoid any accusations of intransigence as he prepared for his high-profile U.S. visit.

"No European or American leader would swoon with excitement on hearing Netanyahu's willingness to give up isolated settlements. They probably wouldn't even believe him," columnist Yossi Verter wrote in the left-wing Haaretz newspaper.

A game-changer could be any acceptance by Netanyahu of the concept of a Palestinian state based on the frontiers that existed before Israel captured the West Bank in a 1967 war.

His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, unsuccessfully negotiated with Abbas along those lines, envisaging an Israeli pullout from almost all of the West Bank and swapping territory in Israel for settlement blocs.

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