Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for peace talks without preconditions to avoid the possibility of Israel becoming a binational state, the Israeli leader said on Tuesday.
"There have been five prime ministers before me who offered proposals that the Palestinians have rejected. I am the sixth. The Palestinians and Mahmoud Abbas are not prepared to agree to even the most minimal of compromises," Netanyahu said at a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office on Tuesday evening, marking three years of his administration.
Netanyahu scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Jerusalem next week. Fayyad will deliver a letter from PA President Mahmoud Abbas setting out the Palestinian position for a resumption of peace talks.
According to Palestinian sources, the letter is expected to include resuming talks on the basis of the 1967 borders, an immediate halt to Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria and east Jerusalem, and the release of Palestinian political prisoners, including those jailed during the Second Intifada.
The meeting with Fayyad, and Netanyahu's comments come as the international Quartet – the U.S., U.N., Russia and the EU – prepare to meet on April 11 over ways to restart the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Netanyahu met with Quartet envoy Tony Blair on Sunday and with U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace David Hale on Tuesday ahead of the Quartet meeting.
Reacting to reports that Abbas is preparing a letter blaming the Israeli prime minister for the stalled peace process, Netanyahu said he would be happy to meet with the Palestinian leader and receive his letter.
"I intend to respond to his letter also," Netanyahu said. "The Palestinian issue has not been neglected. I am prepared to resume negotiations immediately. My interest is what's good for Israel, and I have no desire to head toward a binational state, a situation I oppose. I've offered compromises in the past, compromises whose meaning is a relinquishing of land. For as long as it depends on me, we will ensure the Jewish and democratic character of Israel."
The statement was notable because it in effect concedes a key argument made by Netanyahu's ideological opponents on Israel's Zionist left: A pullout from territories the Palestinian claim for a state is not just a concession that could be made in exchange for peace, but also an imperative for an Israel that wants to remain a Jewish state that is also democratic.
Jews make up roughly 80 percent of Israel's almost 8 million people. However, if Israel is combined with Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — the lands it took over in the 1967 Six-Day War — then the Arab population nears parity, and in the view of some demographers is likely to become a majority soon.
Indeed, as the prospect of peace seems to grow more remote, voices on the Palestinian side increasingly predict — as a threatened default rather than a desired outcome — a "one-state solution" in which Jews and Arabs have equal status.
"The existence of a Jewish state is not just a matter of separation" from the Palestinians, Netanyahu said Tuesday. "It's a matter of security, preserving our basic national interests, and this requires negotiations."
"It is the Palestinians and not we who chose not to hold negotiations over three years," he said. "I hope they change their minds in the coming months. We are ready and prepared to hold negotiations."