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In Israel, growing chorus against Palestinian state

June 26, 2013 10:55 A.M. (Updated: June 29, 2013 1:45 P.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Just days before Washington's top diplomat returns to push for a resumption of direct peace talks, a growing number of Israeli ministers are openly expressing their opposition to the two-state solution.

After a stop in Kuwait, Kerry flies to Jordan on Wednesday which he will use as a base as he shuttles between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas, a US official said.

Kerry, speaking Tuesday in Saudi Arabia, said that President Barack Obama's administration hoped to bring about peace "notwithstanding all of the conflict, notwithstanding all of the counter-indications".

"We believe, President Obama believes, that those negotiations should start as soon as is possible, and hopefully that they should conclude with two states living side by side in peace and security," Kerry said.

Kerry said he was also working with regional players and praised Saudi Arabia for leading a decade-old proposal that would include Arab states' recognition of Israel in return for Israel withdrawing from territories seized in 1967.

But Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who already had a tense relationship with Obama during the US leader's first term over pressure on the peace process, came out of elections leading a coalition that is even more critical of compromises.

Earlier this month, coalition partner Naftali Bennett, who heads the far-right Jewish Home party, said the idea of a Palestinian state was at a "dead-end," and central to the problem was the reluctance of Israel's leadership to simply insist that the West Bank belongs to "the people of Israel."

"There was never a Palestinian state here, and we were never occupiers, this is our home," he said.

"We won't veto the negotiations, we won't bring down the government over this," Bennett told army radio on Tuesday morning, saying he didn't believe "anything much" would come out of Kerry's fifth visit to the region since February.

Likud's Danny Danon, who serves as deputy defense minister, sparked uproar earlier this month after he came out against a Palestinian state.

Danon said the government was not serious about it and that moves to create one would be opposed by most of the coalition.

Since the elections in January, when Likud ran on a joint list with the hardline Yisrael Beitenu, winning a very narrow victory, Netanyahu has faced a growing revolt within the party.

"Netanyahu no longer controls Likud," said political commentator Amit Segal on Israel's Channel 2 television.

Cacophony

Senior coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman, who heads Yisrael Beitenu, has also adopted a tough line vis-a-vis peace, insisting that President Mahmoud Abbas is not a partner with whom Israel can talk.

Another coalition partner is Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who serves as Israel's chief peace negotiator. She has denounced the wave of diplomatic nay-saying sparked by Danon.

"The prime minister must decide if he is going to allow 'Danonism' to control the debate or if he will let forces that understand that a diplomatic solution is in Israel's interest make a decision," she told members of her HaTnuah faction.

Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid, the remaining coalition partner who heads Yesh Atid, Israel's second largest party, has for the moment stuck by Netanyahu, preferring to focus on economic and social issues rather than wading into the Palestinian issue.

Faced with such a cacophony as well as heavy pressure from Washington, Netanyahu is hedging his bets.

"The real test of his strength within the government won't be when negotiations start, but if they have to make concrete decisions, for example, about a total freeze on settlement construction," political commentator Hanan Crystal told AFP.

Palestinian officials widely condemned the comments by Israeli officials.

PLO official Hanan Ashrawi said Danon's remarks were the "essence" of the Israeli government, while PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat said the comments proved that the Israeli government "officially rejects the two-state solution."

"This is clearly part and parcel of an Israeli plan to foil any possibility to establish a Palestinian state. They plan to annex Jerusalem and change the status quo in the city in addition to plans to annex the Jordan valley and other vast areas of the occupied Palestinian state," Erekat said.

Abbas' spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeina, called on the Israeli government to clarify its position on the "dangerous" remarks.

Kerry was making his first visit as secretary of state to Kuwait where he hoped to encourage further international initiatives by the oil-rich state, which a US-led coalition freed from Iraqi occupation in the 1990-91 Gulf War.

The top US diplomat was expected to talk to Kuwait about economic support to the Palestinians. The emirate has a warming relationship with the Palestinian leadership after years of strain over its support for Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War.

Ma'an staff contributed to this report
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