Abbas says won't recognize Israel as Jewish state

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed Monday calls by the new right-leaning Israeli government to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, an issue emerging as a main obstacle to peacemaking.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (L) attends a PLO Executive committee meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah April 11, 2009. REUTERS/Fadi Arouri

“I do not accept it,” the Western-backed Abbas said. “It is not my job to give a description of the state. Name yourself the Hebrew Socialist Republic -- it is none of my business.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement last week it would be impossible to make progress on the diplomatic track and reach a peace agreement without Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

But Netanyahu said he had not made such recognition a precondition for opening peace negotiations. Netanyahu has shied away from endorsing the creation of a Palestinian state, a main goal of U.S.-backed peace talks that are currently frozen.

Palestinians fear recognition of Israel as a Jewish state could help Israeli leaders resist any return of Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced to leave their homes in a 1948 war.

Those concerns were heightened five years ago after then-U.S. President George W. Bush described Israel as a Jewish state in a letter to its prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, and suggested Palestinian refugees be settled in a future Palestine rather than in Israel.

Netanyahu and Abbas plan to make separate visits to Washington next month for their first meetings with Barack Obama since he became president in January.

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Obama’s administration has said it would vigorously pursue Palestinian statehood, setting the stage for possible conflict with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has pledged to hold talks with the Palestinians on economic, security and diplomatic issues. Palestinian leaders have rejected any notion of an “economic peace” and said talks with Israel could not resume until he committed to statehood.

“If you do not want the two-state solution, then what do you accept,” Abbas asked in his speech.

“We want a state on the 1967 borders, not a centimeter more, not a centimeter less,” he said, referring to the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, areas that Israel captured in a war that year.

Netanyahu, who is formulating a Middle East policy plan for presentation to Obama, has said any Palestinian entity must have limited powers of sovereignty and not pose a danger to Israel’s security.

Reporting by Ali Sawafta, Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Samia Nakhoul