JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister on Sunday proposed nonstop, face-to-face talks with the Palestinian president until a peace agreement is reached – offering a possible way to advance talks that have stalled over the construction of Jewish settlements.
Benjamin Netanyahu's proposal offers the appeal of leaders working together to make history, and it comes in response to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' latest claim – made over the weekend in South America – that genuine talks could yield a deal within months. But the Palestinians showed little enthusiasm for Netanyahu's offer.
Reached by The Associated Press in Brazil on Sunday, Abbas reiterated his call for a settlement freeze. "If he does so, we can reach an agreement not in six months, but in two months," he said.
Abbas' chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Netanyahu's offer amounted to little more than an empty declaration. He called on the Israeli leader to spell out a vision of peace, and specifically to commit to a near-complete withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
In his comments Sunday, Netanyahu urged the Palestinians to turn their focus away from settlements and instead work with him on the broader issues needed to reach a final peace deal.
He said he was ready to sit with Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, for "continuous direct one-on-one negotiations until white smoke is wafting," an allusion to the Vatican's custom for announcing a new pope.
"If Abu Mazen agrees to my proposal of directly discussing all the core issues, we will know very quickly if we can reach an agreement," he said.
Netanyahu did not spell out details, but his new approach would be based on the idea that all the outstanding issues would be on the table, as opposed to the Palestinian approach of demanding a settlement freeze and general agreement on borders before talks resume.
President Barack Obama has made Mideast peace a top priority, personally launching the latest round of negotiations at the White House in early September and pledging to forge a deal within a year. But the U.S.-brokered talks broke down just three weeks later with the expiration of a limited Israeli freeze on settlement construction.
Netanyahu grudgingly accepted the principle of a Palestinian right to statehood only two years ago, and the past months' diplomatic difficulties have deepened the Palestinians' distrust. Appearing to despair of restarting talks, they have embarked on a parallel track of seeking recognition by world governments for a Palestinian state even without Israeli agreement.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. They say that Israel's construction in these areas is a sign of bad faith and refuse to renew talks until settlement building is frozen again.
Israel has refused, and U.S. officials have been unable to find a way to get talks moving again. There was no immediate comment from the Americans on Netanyahu's latest idea, which – in ratcheting up the level and intensity of negotiation – could offer a creative way to sidestep the settlement issue.
The fate of the settlements is critical to any future deal. Some 300,000 settlers now live in the West Bank, in addition to 200,000 Israelis living in east Jerusalem.
Talks would have to also address other difficult issues: final borders between Israel and a future Palestine; the fate of Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants; and perhaps most explosive, the competing claims to the holy city of Jerusalem, which Netanyahu has insisted must remain entirely Israeli. The gaps on all these issues are wide – although previous, more liberal Israeli governments did make progress on borders.
Netanyahu said his proposal was a response to Abbas' claim over the weekend that serious talks could yield an agreement in just two months. Speaking in Brazil, Abbas suggested that Netanyahu adopt the positions of his more dovish predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
"We were close to an agreement," Abbas said. "The Palestinian position is clear to the Israelis and the Israeli position presented by Olmert is clear to us."
Olmert has said he offered the Palestinians virtually all of the West Bank and parts of east Jerusalem. The Palestinians did not accept the offer, and negotiations broke down in late 2008. Netanyahu, who leads a more hardline coalition government, has given no indication that he is prepared to make similar concessions.
Eitan Bentsur, a former director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry and onetime peace negotiator, said direct talks might give the negotiating process a fresh start, but were unlikely to bridge all the deep differences at this stage. "Very soon they will face the core issues that have to be overcome," he said.
Yossi Beilin, a dovish former Israeli negotiator, said Netanyahu does not have a peace plan, so "such an invitation (to nonstop talks) is hollow." Beilin told the AP that Netanyahu "is very, very far from the demands of the most pragmatic Palestinian leadership ever."
Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, complained that during the three weeks of direct talks last September, Netanyahu made no proposals for future arrangements between Israel and Palestine. "It is time for him to present his vision of peace, two states based on the 1967 lines, with minor, mutually agreed land swaps," Erekat said.
A broad withdrawal offer would likely cause Netanyahu's government to collapse, though he could seek the support of more liberal parties. The main opposition party, Kadima, is also the largest in parliament, and its leaders have said they would prop up Netanyahu if he made genuine peace moves.
Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev, said the prime minister knows that reaching peace will require "hard choices" from both sides.
"To be successful, it has to be done eye to eye, directly between the leaders of both sides," he said. "But (Netanyahu) firmly believes this is doable. In fact, there is no other way to peace."