JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister gave a cool reception Wednesday to a new Arab Mideast peace initiative, saying the conflict with the Palestinians isn't about territory, but rather the Palestinians' refusal to recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland.
The remarks signaled trouble for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's new push for Mideast peace and risked reinforcing Benjamin Netanyahu's image as a hard-liner unwilling to make the tough concessions required for peace.
Netanyahu has not commented directly on the Arab League's latest initiative, but his words questioned its central tenet — the exchange of captured land for peace — and appeared to counter a modified peace proposal from the Arab world that Washington and Netanyahu's own chief negotiator have welcomed.
The original 2002 Arab initiative offered a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Muslim world in exchange for a withdrawal from all territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Sweetening the offer this week, the Arab sponsor said final borders could be drawn through mutually agreed land swaps.
Netanyahu questioned the premise that borders are the key.
“The root of the conflict isn't territorial. It began way before 1967,” he told Israeli diplomats. “The Palestinians' failure to accept the state of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people is the root of the conflict. If we reach a peace agreement, I want to know that the conflict won't continue — that the Palestinians won't come later with more demands.”
The Palestinians have rejected Netanyahu's demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, saying that would undermine the rights of Israel's Arab minority as well as millions of refugees whose families lost properties during the war surrounding Israel's establishment in 1948. The fate of the refugees is a core issue that would need to be resolved in a final peace deal.
After meeting U.S. congressmen Wednesday, Netanyahu said he appreciated the efforts of President Barack Obama and Kerry to restart negotiations but said that for talks to succeed, the Palestinians must also guarantee solid security arrangements. “We're prepared to discuss many things, but I will never compromise on Israel's security,” he said.