TEL AVIV (Reuters) - On the eve of a first visit by new U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an ally of Benjamin Netanyahu made clear on Sunday the incoming prime minister would not commit Israel to Washington’s goal of a Palestinian state. Silvan Shalom, a senior figure in the right-wing Likud party and foreign minister until 2006, said that Netanyahu would engage in a dialogue with the Palestinians and expected to work closely with the Obama administration in the United States.
But he said the Likud leader would not pre-judge the outcome of peace negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by agreeing in advance, as the outgoing government and its predecessors did, to the two-state solution advocated by the international powers since the Oslo accords of 1993. “We need the next government to come with an approach that will enable us and the Palestinians ... to put every idea on the table,” Shalom told Reuters in an interview.
“But I don’t see a way now to announce in advance that the final outcome will be an independent Palestinian state. That’s something that should be discussed.”
He acknowledged that Netanyahu’s reluctance to endorse the outgoing, centrist-led cabinet’s commitment to the 15-month-old, U.S.-sponsored Annapolis peace process was bound up with efforts to forge a new ruling coalition following last month’s election.
Likud won one seat fewer than the centrist Kadima party of outgoing Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni but neither secured even a quarter of parliament and the strength of small, right-wing and religious parties persuaded the president to give Netanyahu, rather than Livni, the first chance to form a new government.
Livni, chief negotiator with the Palestinians, has rejected Netanyahu’s offer of joining a national unity government, saying she could not accept his stance on Palestinian statehood.
Netanyahu has been careful not to rule out a Palestinian state but he and aides have said he wants to establish limits to its sovereignty before agreeing to such an outcome, and focus negotiations on economic rather than territorial issues.
Shalom described Livni’s approach as tactical, noting that Netanyahu would risk losing his right-wing allies, both within and outside Likud, if he matched her pledge on two states.
But, he added, Likud had not given up on persuading Kadima and Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Labour party to join a broad coalition that could face what it saw as critical threats — Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the global economic crisis and a new military offensive he saw being required against Hamas in Gaza.
“To talk now about a two-state solution would be something that I believe would put a very strong obstacle on the possibilities of the Likud to form a coalition,” he said.
Shalom said he did not rule out that, even if Livni rejected a government role, some senior figures in Kadima, many of whom were members of Likud until 2005, would later join Netanyahu: “Maybe they could find ways to split the party,” he said.
Noting the failure of previous governments to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians, Shalom said a Netanyahu government, whether broad-based or right-wing, would respect past international agreements such as the Oslo accords.
But it would not be pushed into accepting a Palestinian state at a time when many Israelis thought ending the occupation of the West Bank would lead to Hamas taking over there as it had in the Gaza Strip after Israel pulled out in 2005.
“To think that if now Mr. Netanyahu would ... say ‘two-state solution’ and it would immediately bring a peace treaty, I think it’s something that is unrealistic,” Shalom said.
The U.S.-educated Netanyahu had often strained relations with Washington when he was prime minister in the late 1990s at a time when Clinton’s husband Bill was president. Clinton will arrive in Israel on Monday for her first visit in her new role.
Pressed to explain how Netanyahu would now assure her that he was working toward goals shared by Washington in the Middle East, Shalom said: “We need to take a positive move forward in order to have a constructive dialogue with the Palestinians and by that to have a real open dialogue with the United States.”
Editing by Dominic Evans