Netanyahu turns fire on Abbas as U.S. envoy flies in

JERUSALEM Wed Jan 20, 2010 10:22pm GMT

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he addresses members of the foreign media during a reception in Jerusalem January 20, 2010. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he addresses members of the foreign media during a reception in Jerusalem January 20, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mocked the Palestinian leadership on Wednesday for rejecting U.S. calls for peace negotiations, as President Barack Obama's envoy prepared for new talks.

Addressing foreign media, Netanyahu attacked President Mahmoud Abbas for refusing to end a year-old suspension of talks until Israel stops building settlements. "The Palestinians have climbed up a tree," Netanyahu said. "And they like it up there.

"People bring ladders to them. We bring ladders to them. The higher the ladder, the higher they climb."

Diplomats have used such images in recent months to describe efforts by Obama's envoy George Mitchell and others to promote some face-saving way for Abbas to retreat from a condition he has set.

Abbas has said he will resume negotiations on establishing a Palestinian state only after Netanyahu stops all Jewish building in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

With Mitchell holding his first talks this year with the two sides Thursday and Friday, Netanyahu made clear what he hoped the mediators would do.

"The Palestinians are piling demand upon demand upon demand," said Netanyahu. "They should be told fair and square ... 'Start negotiating for peace' ... Let's get on with it.

"I'm prepared for peace. Are the Palestinians ready for peace?" asked Netanyahu, noting his coalition's moves to promote economic growth in the West Bank by lifting road blocks and its partial restraint on expanding settlements.

U.S. SHIFT?

U.S.-Israeli relations had once been marked by unwonted coolness under Netanyahu's premiership and the Obama presidency. But Western diplomats said Wednesday they detected signs that Washington was increasingly frustrated with Abbas.

One Western diplomat in the region, speaking privately, said that Abbas "as the weaker partner" was now the focus of U.S. efforts to stir the peace process back to life. "It's a dramatic shift from the way it started with Obama year ago," he said.

Mitchell raised Israeli hackles last week with remarks about curbing U.S. financial help for the Jewish state if peace efforts got bogged down. But the diplomat spoke of an "implicit threat" of cuts in U.S. aid to the West Bank if Abbas held out.

Signs of a shifting balance of power were clear in September when Obama softened his opposition to Israeli settlement policy and persuaded Abbas to meet him, with Netanyahu, in New York.

One possible way out of the impasse is that Mitchell might persuade the Palestinians to negotiate by framing the talks in such a way as to set an "endgame," with the goal being a deal on a Palestinian state within a couple of years.

Abbas was quoted as saying last weekend that if Netanyahu did not impose a full settlement freeze, another option was for Washington to define the parameters of a deal. Israel says such parameters may amount to prejudging the outcome of negotiations.

An Abbas aide, Nabil Abu Rdainah, made clear Wednesday that Abbas still wanted more from Israel, even if Mitchell proposed some framework for talks that met Palestinian demands.

"American guarantees are not enough," Abu Rdainah told Reuters. "What we are in need of is an Israeli commitment to implement the road map, which means a Palestinian state on the lines occupied in 1967 including East Jerusalem as its capital.

"This is the vital question and this is what the Americans should do in the coming days: get an answer from the Israelis."

Some people in Israel have speculated lately that Netanyahu could stage a surprise shift in tack, pushing for a peace deal in defiance of his own allies on the right and possibly seeking new, centrist partners. But the prime minister also made clear Wednesday the limits he saw on Palestinian sovereignty.

The threat to Israel from Iranian-backed groups such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon meant that any Palestinian state would be "demilitarized," he said. Israel would want military oversight around the borders of such a state.

(Additional reporting by Douglas Hamilton and Tom Perry)

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