WASHINGTON - Israel's prime minister said on Monday he was ready to begin Israeli-Palestinian peace talks immediately but he made no reference to a Palestinian state, an omission that has dismayed Arab, European and U.S. officials.
We are prepared to resume peace negotiations without any delay and without any preconditions -- the sooner the better, Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking from Israel via satellite, said to a conference organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a leading U.S. pro-Israel lobby group.
Netanyahu described a triple track approach toward peace that would include talks on political issues, on boosting the Palestinian economy and on strengthening Palestinian security forces.
But senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat criticized Netanyahu's speech for its vagueness in not committing to negotiate core issues such as the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees and for not committing to a two-state solution.
Nobody has time for public relations and language of vagueness, I hope we don't have to wait years before we have a 'yes' or 'no' answer to these simple questions, we have to know now, Erekat told Reuters.
Since being sworn in as head of Israel's new, right-leaning government on March 31, Netanyahu has not specifically discussed establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a U.S. and Arab priority.
In a speech to AIPAC earlier on Monday, Israeli President Shimon Peres said Israel's new government wants peace with all Arabs but he also made no explicit mention of establishing a Palestinian state.
Peres, who holds a largely ceremonial post but has great personal prestige as an elder statesman, will meet U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House on Tuesday.
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 himself to statehood.
Netanyahu's stance may bring him into conflict with Obama, whose special envoy, George Mitchell, has stressed Obama's commitment to a two-state solution that would create a Palestinian state beside Israel to end the six-decade conflict.
Netanyahu plans to visit Washington on May 18 for talks with Obama that may clarify the chances of resuming U.S.-backed peace talks that bogged down last year in disputes over borders, and the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
The Palestinians broke off the negotiations after Israel launched a Gaza offensive in late December.
While he said he was not setting any preconditions for talks, Netanyahu said that the Palestinians would have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state for a final peace accord.
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.