OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israel's new opposition chief said Wednesday that Benjamin Netanyahu's views on a peace deal with the Palestinians remain an enigma, and that he's not sure the Israeli prime minister has the "mental willingness" to do what is needed.
"This is the big question of the day, whether Netanyahu has come to the conclusion that there has to be change," Isaac Herzog of the center-left Labor Party told The Associated Press in an interview in his office in Israel's parliament. He said he believed a deal was urgently needed and possible - including on the complex issue of dividing or sharing Jerusalem among two peoples who have been hostile for about a century.
Herzog, who won Labor's leadership primary last month, met separately in recent weeks with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "Each one thinks the other one may not be willing to go as far as needed," Herzog said, adding that the two leaders must seize the current opportunity for a deal on setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Like many on the Israeli left, Herzog suggested such an outcome was badly needed by Israel itself, no less than the Palestinians.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is returning to the region Thursday to meet with Netanyahu and Abbas and try to prod them toward a deal. After two decades of intermittent talks - and with wide gaps evident between Abbas and Netanyahu - expectations of the current round are extremely low. Still, Herzog said he believes the chance of success "is not zero."
Herzog, who met in Washington over the weekend with Kerry and U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, said he is impressed by the secretary's efforts to reach a formula both sides can accept.
Last week, Kerry presented a U.S. proposal for security arrangements between Israel and a future state of Palestine. Under the plan, Israel would retain final say for at least another 10 years over that state's border with Jordan, a proposal meant to address Israeli concerns about the influx of weapons and militants into a future Palestine.
Kerry also plans to reach a framework agreement that would define the end point of negotiations, including on borders. Abbas aides have sharply criticized Kerry's latest proposals, saying Israel's security concerns were addressed in a specific way, while a framework agreement would only give the Palestinians vague assurances.
Talks began in late July, after fear years of diplomatic impasse. Abbas, who entered the talks reluctantly because of the lack of common ground with Netanyahu, said he would remain in the negotiations for a total of nine months.
Herzog said his Labor Party would grant a parliamentary safety net to any peace deal Netanyahu presents to parliament. It controls 15 of the 120 parliament seats - making it the largest of the 12 parties in parliament that have not joined Netanyahu's coalition.
The opposition leader noted that many members of Netanyahu's own Likud Party aren't on board, and that Netanyahu would have to persuade them to support a deal.
"Today in parliament, out of 120 (legislators), there are 59 members, including Arab members who would vote yea in favor of a deal," Herzog said, referring to the total seats controlled by parties that are not on the right and not religious. "However, Netanyahu, if he wants to bring a deal, must bring the majority of Likud with him. And that will be the question. Can he do that?"
Since 2009, Netanyahu repeatedly has said he is willing to negotiate the terms of a Palestinian state - a position that seemed a departure for the lifelong hard-liner. However, he has also presided over accelerated construction in Jewish settlements on the war-won lands the Palestinians want for their state, raising questions about his intentions. Palestinians have accused him of stalling and negotiating in bad faith.
Herzog said he told Netanyahu in their last meeting that he needs to go toward a partition deal if he wants to preserve Israel as a state with a significant Jewish majority. Netanyahu appears aware of the dangers Israel faces in the absence of a peace deal, Herzog said.
"I am not sure he (Netanyahu) has got the mental willingness and capability of doing that," Herzog said, referring to the far-reaching concessions needed to bring about such a deal. He said the two leaders have a historic opportunity and "must seize this moment."
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967, but are willing to accept minor land swaps to accommodate some of the largest Jewish settlements closest to Israel.
A youthful 53, Herzog has been a leading lawmaker for a decade and served as Cabinet minister in a series of governments. He was previously a top aide to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and a high-profile lawyer in the private sector.
Affectionately known by his nickname "Bougie," he enjoys a kind of royalty status in the party. His late father, Chaim Herzog, was president of Israel from 1983-93 and was its ambassador to the United Nations. His uncle was legendary Foreign Minister Abba Eban.