Netanyahu says hasn't set precondition for talks
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday he had not made Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state a precondition for opening peace negotiations.
Comments last week on the issue by a senior official in the Prime Minister's Office led many media outlets in Israel to report that Netanyahu had set those terms for holding talks with Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Palestinians said at the time that Netanyahu, on a collision course with Washington over his reluctance to commit to Palestinian statehood, raised a new demand to try to avoid entering a serious negotiating process.
In a new statement, Netanyahu's office said he believed it would be impossible to achieve a peace agreement without recognition of Israel as a Jewish state -- a position voiced by Israeli officials last week and rejected by the Palestinians.
But it said that contrary to media reports, "the prime minister never made that a precondition for the opening of negotiations and dialogue with the Palestinians."
Palestinians fear recognition of Israel as a Jewish state could help Israeli leaders resist any return of Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced to leave their homes in a 1948 war.
Those concerns were heightened five years ago after then-U.S. President George W. Bush described Israel as a Jewish state in a letter to its prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, and suggested Palestinian refugees be settled in a future Palestine rather than in Israel.
The Prime Minister's Office issued the statement before an expected announcement later this week of a date for a Netanyahu visit next month to the White House, his first since taking office on March 31 at the head of a right-leaning government.
Visiting Israel and the occupied West Bank last week, U.S. President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, said he would vigorously pursue the creation of a Palestinian state, setting the stage for possible conflict with Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has pledged to hold talks with the Palestinians on economic, security and diplomatic issues but has made no public promise to negotiate statehood.
Palestinian leaders have rejected any notion of an "economic peace" and have said U.S.-backed talks with Israel could not resume until Netanyahu committed to statehood.
His far-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has said talks on a Palestinian state launched at a 2007 conference in Annapolis, Maryland had reached a "dead end."
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)
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