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World News

Offer to Abbas is not classic state: Israel envoy

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not offering Palestinians a state “in the classical sense,” his new ambassador to Washington said on Tuesday, citing limits on sovereignty that Israel would demand.

Netanyahu used the words “Palestinian state” for the first time on Sunday to describe what he was prepared to accept as the outcome of negotiations with the Palestinians. His language was meant to ease tensions with U.S. President Barack Obama, which have marked Netanyahu’s first three months in office.

But the Israeli leader made his shift in stance conditional on the United States and other world powers providing him with firm guarantees in advance that any such future Palestinian state will have no army, no control over its airspace and only limited sovereignty over borders and foreign policy.

“When the prime minister and the government uses the word ‘state’ now, it has to attach a number of caveats to it, so it’ll be understood that what we’re talking about here is not a state in the classical sense, as is widely understood, but a state that will have some -- some -- substantive restrictions on its powers,” envoy Michael Oren told Reuters in an interview.

“Hence the initial reluctance to even use the word ‘state’, because when you say ‘state’, it carries a number of assumptions with it,” added Oren, a U.S.-born historian and expert on Middle East affairs who plans to assume his post in Washington shortly.

Western powers, and even many Palestinians themselves, have long envisaged any future Palestinian state agreed with Israel being “demilitarized,” a key Israeli demand. The major powers have not, however, spelled out publicly what that means.

By flagging the sensitive issue in Sunday’s high-profile speech and demanding the guarantees upfront, Netanyahu put the Obama administration and its partners in the Quartet of Middle East mediators -- the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- in a difficult spot, Western diplomats said.

“A lot of thought has to go into this. You say too much, too early, and you blow things up,” an American official said.

Even if Washington privately agreed to all of Netanyahu’s demands, making such sweeping limitations on Palestinian sovereignty public would hurt Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas’s standing at home by making clear to his public just how little power their state will eventually have, they said.

WHAT’S IN A STATE?

A senior European diplomat predicted resistance within the EU because Netanyahu’s definition of demilitarization meant “security control would still be in Israel’s hands,” even after a state was established in the West Bank, presently under Israeli occupation, and the coastal enclave of the Gaza Strip.

“It doesn’t meet what most political scientists would mean by a state,” said Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

But Brown added: “More important than political science terminology is Palestinian political reality. To Palestinians, this would sound like the kind of ‘autonomy’ or ‘self rule’ that they have been offered (in the past), gussied up with flags and maybe a U.N. seat. They have consistently rejected it.”

“What Netanyahu offered is not a state at all,” senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

Oren said Israel wanted a future Palestinian state to have all of the powers of a sovereign state “with the exception of those few powers that can threaten us,” such as a standing army with tanks or an air force. Netanyahu on Sunday said Palestinians would have a flag, national anthem and government.

A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Netanyahu would begin talks with Washington and its Quartet partners in the coming weeks about obtaining the security guarantees it wants about Palestinian demilitarization.

Oren said he expected the guarantees to be in writing, comparing them to those Washington gave at the conclusion of the 1979 Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt.

Diplomats said tough negotiations lay ahead.

But Oren said there was a long-standing “understanding” in Washington about what was needed, including a Palestinian “police force” that would maintain “internal security, guard the border but without threatening us.” Abbas’s Palestinian Authority already has armed internal security forces.

A U.S. proposal to send NATO troops to the occupied West Bank as part of a future statehood pact was rebuffed by both Israeli and Palestinian leaders as unworkable, diplomats said.

A senior Israeli official said of Netanyahu: “He’s not looking at international forces or international monitors.

“He’s very skeptical of what international forces can do.”

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