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Netanyahu Gives No Hint of Concessions to Palestinians

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to travel to Washington this week in an effort to muster U.S. support for Israel in the face of political changes in the Arab world and rising pressure from the Palestinians.

The Israeli leader will have an opportunity to explain to U.S. President Barack Obama how he plans to deal with changes in the Arab world and the growing internal and external pressure for a peace with the Palestinians.

Israeli officials say it is too early to tell what changes will come in neighboring Arab states in the wake of recent uprisings, but they are concerned that more hostile governments will replace the ones that have fallen.

Speaking to Israeli lawmakers Monday, Netanyahu said that during this transition period, Israel's situation might become more problematic and challenging.

The Israeli leader said Israel sees what is happening in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, which he says is now ruled by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. He noted that the demonstration by thousands of Palestinians at Israel's border fences on Sunday, calling it an attempt to invade Israel's territory and harm its sovereignty.

Sunday's unprecedented wave of protests by thousands of Palestinian demonstrators at Israel's borders and checkpoints along the Palestinian territories showed that the so-called Arab Spring has arrived at Israel's doorstep.

Demonstration organizers used Facebook and other social media to call protesters from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and Syria. Many described themselves as Palestinian refugees seeking to return to their ancestral homes in what is now Israel.

Netanyahu says Israel wants peace with the Palestinians, and he laid out a list of conditions on Monday. None of them hinted at changes in policy or concessions ahead of his Washington trip.

The Israeli leader said the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, allow for Jerusalem to remain undivided under Israeli rule, and agree that a future Palestinian state would be demilitarized.

He also ruled out the return of refugees to lands inside Israel, saying that Palestinians who want to return to Israel threaten the existence of the Jewish state.

Netanyahu said he is ready to accept a Palestinian state, but that he is not ready to accept a Palestinian state instead of the state of Israel.

Also causing concern for Israel's leaders is a reconciliation agreement recently signed by the moderate Fatah faction that runs the West Bank and the militant Islamist group Hamas that rules Gaza.

Israel opposes dealing with any Palestinian leadership that includes Hamas, which the United States considers to be a terrorist organization and whose charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Beverley Milton-Edwards, a political scientist at Queens University Belfast, specializing in Palestinian Islamist groups, says "Israel feels very insecure with the threat that Hamas poses on its doorstep in Gaza combined or tied to the threat that it perceives is posed from the northern border from other Islamist forces and in particular in Hezbollah. So I think this explains why Israel finds it difficult to believe in such overtures."

Palestinian officials plan to be in Washington at the same time as Netanyahu and are expected to make a case for their reconciliation deal.

"Unity is a requirement for anything. How can we sign an agreement with Israel, but we can only guarantee its implementation in the West Bank? It is ridiculous. Unity is a requirement for peace," said Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official.

The Palestinians are preparing for September, when they will seek United Nations support for statehood.

Israel, meanwhile, is working to shore up international support to prevent the recognition of a Palestinian state before a final peace agreement is reached.

At home, Netanyahu is under pressure from the political opposition, which has been calling on him to come up with a peace proposal.

"I believe he should come up with a certain peace initiative, peace plan, or political program, and present it worldwide in order to first of all convince us Israelis and the Palestinians and finally the entire world that Israel does mean peace and intends to achieve peace and this is the way to go,” said Nachman Shai, a lawmaker with the centrist Kadima party. “I wish very much to see him putting out this plan while he meets with President Obama at the end of the week. I am almost sure this is just a dream."

Relations between the United States and Israel have been strained during the Obama administration, as the Netanyahu government has resisted White House pressure for it to curb settlement construction in the West Bank.

With conditions in the region becoming more uncertain, many Israelis are watching to see how far Netanyahu is willing to go to bolster relations with Israel's biggest ally.