Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

Netanyahu wants to talk settlements, clarify where Israel can build

PLO member Saeb Erekat says Israeli settlements are illegitimate, so discussion about their boundaries is irrelevant

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proposed resuming peace negotiations with the Palestinians — but with the initial focus on identifying Jewish settlements that Israel would keep and be allowed to expand, an Israeli official said Tuesday.

Peace talks had collapsed in April 2014 after Israel accelerated settlement-building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas Palestinians seek for a state.

"It's clear there are areas that will remain under Israeli control under any agreement, just as it's clear that there are areas that will remain under Palestinian control under any agreement," an official said, quoting Netanyahu according to left-wing Israeli news website Haaretz.

"Therefore, we can advance toward understandings on which areas we can continue building in, since in any case, they'll remain under Israeli control," Netanyahu added, according to the report.

Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat on Tuesday called Netanyahu's proposal an attempt to legitimize the settlements, according to Haaretz. Because the settlements are considered illegal under international law, there is no place for discussion of their borders, Erekat said. 

Israel’s refusal to cease settlement-building activities has been widely condemned as an obstacle to achieving lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But Netanyahu has vowed to continue building the settlements — which many Palestinians view as an attempt to create "facts on the ground" and cement Israeli control over Palestinian territory.

In order to restart the political process, Erekat told Haaretz, Israel must halt all settlement construction and release the last batch of Palestinian prisoners jailed and tried before the Oslo Accords — which Netanyahu agreed to in 2013 as a precondition to start peace negotiations.

When those conditions are fulfilled, negotiations toward a two-state solution could restart with a determined period of time to end the occupation, Erekat added. 

Netanyahu's proposal comes after a meeting with European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini in Jerusalem last Wednesday. During the meeting, Netanyahu said that some of the land Israel captured in a 1967 war would remain in its hands while other parts would be left under Palestinian control, an Israeli official said.

With the inauguration two weeks ago of his new right-wing government following March elections, Netanyahu faces U.S. and EU calls to re-engage with the Palestinians. The prime minister had raised international alarm when he said during his campaign, in an attempt to attract right-wing voters, that no Palestinian state would be formed while he was in office.

But at the start of Netanyahu's meeting with Mogherini, he said that he was committed to the principle of "two states for two peoples," and that his support for the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state hadn't changed, according to Haaretz.

Mogherini said she hoped Netanyahu's actions on the ground would support those statements and show commitment to a two-state solution. A Western diplomat described Netanyahu's proposal as creating "the illusion of progress."

"Netanyahu was trying to show that he is committed to peace and ready for negotiations, but he knows the Palestinians would never agree to begin on this basis," the diplomat said.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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