Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Wednesday talks on Palestinian statehood must be predicated on the recognition of Israel as “the state of the Jewish people”, a new Israeli condition.Palestinian leaders swiftly rejected Olmert’s demand and the issue threatened to complicate attempts to draft a joint document that would serve as the foundation for a U.S.-hosted Middle East conference later this month.
Israel and the Palestinians regard the international gathering in Annapolis, Maryland, as a launching point for talks on statehood, including “core issues” such as borders, the future of Jerusalem and millions of Palestinian refugees.
Olmert’s office said he told the European Union’s top diplomat, Javier Solana, that Israel insisted “the foundation for the post-Annapolis negotiations with the Palestinians be recognition of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people”.
Differences over the issue emerged this week when Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Palestinians would not accept Israel as a “Jewish state”, a definition that could help Olmert argue against a return of refugees in a final deal.
Although Olmert has now put the demand on the record, his use of the phrase “state of the Jewish people”, rather than “Jewish state”, could leave room for diplomatic maneuvering.
Olmert is struggling to hold together his diverse governing coalition, which includes right-wingers, ahead of what both sides consider a last-ditch bid for a deal before President George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009.
“We do not accept conditions of this type, not at all,” said Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on Al Arabiya television.
Asked about Olmert’s comments to Solana, Erekat accused the Israeli leader of asking Palestinians to meet conditions that were not set out in a 2003 “road map” charting reciprocal steps towards creating a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
“The road map asks us to commit in an unequivocal way to recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist,” he said. “It doesn’t mention anything about the nature of the religion.”
Erekat said Israelis “can call themselves whatever they want — we have recognized the state of Israel”.
In the run-up to the conference, Olmert had already cautioned that Israel would not implement any peace accord until Palestinians met security commitments under the road map.
Palestinians have demanded Israel meet its obligations, including a halt to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and evacuation of outposts established in the territory without Israeli government authorization.
Israeli officials said Olmert intends to announce soon a curb in settlement activity.
But it was unclear how much of an impact a freeze would have and whether major settlement blocs — which Israel intends to keep under a peace deal — would be included.
One of the officials said Olmert’s top aides were in Washington, in part to seek “exact details of how you interpret” the road map’s call for freezing all settlement activity.
Israel’s Defense Ministry froze building permits several months ago to increase pressure on residents to leave dozens of illegal outposts, according to a leading settler movement.
A public announcement by Olmert on a settlement curb could help persuade Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to attend the Annapolis meeting.