BEIRUT

Middle East

Jordan to Israeli PM: Settle with Palestinians

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during a session marking the 65th anniversary of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, January 14, 2014, at the beginning of the second winter session of the Knesset. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

AMMAN: Jordan’s king called on visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday to seize the moment and opportunity made possible under a U.S. diplomatic push to achieve a lasting and comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians, the Royal Palace said.

The appeal came during a surprise visit by Netanyahu, who held talks with Abdullah II on the latest in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The palace said the two talked behind closed doors about the “developments in the peace process” and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations sponsored by the United States.

But according to reports Thursday, Netanyahu has increased the amount of occupied territory he wants to keep after any peace deal with the Palestinians, Israeli radio said, a move that could complicate peace efforts. 

The prime minister’s visit to Amman was not previously announced. Netanyahu made at least three similar visits to Jordan last year. There was no immediate comment in Israel on Thursday’s visit.

Jordan maintains cordial relations with Israel under a peace treaty signed in 1994 – one of only two signed agreements the Jewish state has with an Arab nation.

Abdullah’s talks with Netanyahu came a week after the king hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and days earlier, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

The palace statement said the meeting with Netanyahu was significant because it coincided with a “critical period” in the negotiations. It did not elaborate, but added that Thursday’s talks were part of Jordan’s “cooperation with all the sides involved in the peace process.”

The palace quoted Abdullah as urging Netanyahu to make use “and build on the opportunity made available by the consolidated efforts of the U.S. secretary of state to achieve tangible progress in the peace negotiations.”

The ultimate goal, Abdullah added, is the establishment of an “independent and viable Palestinian state” with East Jerusalem as its capital. He stressed that Palestinian-Israeli final status negotiations touch on “higher Jordanian interests.”

“They are a top priority for us,” he reportedly told Netanyahu.

The palace said Netanyahu briefed Abdullah on the negotiations with the Palestinians, but did not provide details.

In the Israeli-Palestinian talks, which resumed last summer, the two sides set an April target date for agreeing on a framework for peace. But in recent weeks, they appear to have hardened their positions.

The Palestinians seek the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in 1967, for an independent state. Netanyahu wants to keep parts of the West Bank and says he will not share control of East Jerusalem, home to sensitive religious sites. He has also insisted that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, a condition they say would undermine the rights of Palestinian refugees and Israel’s own Arab minority.

Netanyahu’s spokesman declined to comment on the report that he had added a bloc of Israeli-settled land near the Palestinian governmental seat in the occupied West Bank to a list of enclaves Israel intends to retain.

That would leave 13 percent of the West Bank in Israeli hands, Israel’s Army Radio said, a prospect likely to dismay Palestinians who want the area for a future state.

There was no immediate comment from Abbas. But a Palestinian official, who asked not to be identified, rejected the notion of Israel keeping large clusters of settlements.

“We are saying that once we agree on the withdrawal to 1967 borders, we can accept minor exchanges of land on a case-by-case basis,” the official said, referring to lines – described by Israel as indefensible – predating the war in which it captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

According to the report, Netanyahu told Kerry that Israel intends to hold on to the Beit El settlement enclave in addition to the Etzion, Maale Adumim and Ariel blocs it has long said it would keep. 

Beit El, north of Jerusalem, is next to the city of Ramallah, where Abbas’ Palestinian Authority is based.

Army Radio said Netanyahu had also departed from past peace blueprints that had envisaged an equal trade of land inside Israel for any West Bank areas it retained.

Instead, the station reported, Netanyahu has offered to buy some of the settlement land from the Palestinians, but that they had rejected such a deal.

The radio attributed its information to an anonymous source familiar with the details of five-month-old, U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Army Radio said Netanyahu spoke to Kerry about a biblical connection to Beit El, and its depiction in the Book of Genesis as the place where Jacob dreamt about a ladder to heaven.

The future of settlements is a core issue in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinians fear Israeli enclaves will deny them contiguous terrain they see as crucial to a viable country.

Israel, along with the release of dozens of Palestinian prisoners as part of the talks, has stoked Palestinian anger by announcing settlement housing in areas it hopes to retain.

Netanyahu’s demands for an Israeli troop presence in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley, the likely eastern border of a future Palestinian state, have also rankled Palestinians.

Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Israel Radio Thursday that keeping Israeli settlers in the valley was also vital to Israel’s security interests.

Palestinians seek a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital. In 2005, Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip, now run by Hamas Islamists whom are opposed to the peace talks.

More than 500,000 Israeli settlers live among 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The settlements are considered illegal under international law.

 

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