Netanyahu Rejects Criticism of Peace Conference Proposal

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is rebuffing criticism of yet another idea to advance the moribund peace process.

Netanyahu was roundly criticized at home and abroad this week for proposing that an international conference be convened to discuss regional issues.

The premier raised the idea in an interview published over the weekend in a Spanish newspaper, suggesting that the purpose of such a gathering would be to encourage multilateral dialogue in such areas as disarmament, energy, water and transport.

Netanyahu said that he did not envision the proposed conference as replacing an American initiative to break the deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian talks or as an alternative to resuming bilateral talks.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat rejected the idea of an international peace conference along the lines of the 1991 Madrid conference, which launched direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as well as multilateral talks on several regional issues.

“First of all, he has to respect what has been done since Madrid,” Arafat was quoted as telling reporters in the Gaza Strip on Sunday.

The Palestinians have accused Netanyahu of failing to uphold the interim peace accords Israel and the Palestinians signed since 1993.

For his part, Netanyahu said Sunday he believed that Israel and the Palestinians could possibly reach an agreement by the end of July, when the Knesset adjourns for its summer recess.

However, Netanyahu said it was up to the Palestinians to meet their commitments to make this possible.

“I estimate the process will be completed by then. I can’t say for certain because I cannot dictate what the Palestinians do on their side,” Netanyahu told Israel Radio. “The thing that is holding up progress in the political process is the Palestinian refusal to honor its commitments on a practical level.”

A week ago, Netanyahu was taken to task by the Arab world, the Israeli opposition and even some members of his own coalition for proposing that a national referendum be held on the issue of redeploying Israeli troops from the West Bank.

The Palestinians accused Netanyahu of trying to delay the redeployment, and some in Israel questioned the legalities of turning to the general public on a major policy issue that should be decided by elected officials.

The Prime Minister’s Office said this week a final decision on whether to hold a referendum would be discussed by the Cabinet only after an agreement is reached between Israel and the Palestinians on the redeployment.

Netanyahu was due to discuss his idea for another Madrid conference with visiting Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

Speaking in Cairo over the weekend, Aznar expressed support for another Madrid conference, on the conditions that it be a continuation of the process started in 1991 and accelerate the Israeli-Arab peace tracks.

Reaction from Arab leaders, however, was not as positive. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Netanyahu’s proposal was an attempt to “sabotage the peace process.”

The proposal also drew criticism on the home front.

Education Minister Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party said he saw no need for such a conference, and believed Israel should focus its efforts on the permanent status negotiations with the Palestinians.

Opposition members dismissed the proposal as a diversion tactic.

Labor Knesset member Yossi Beilin said the prime minister knows there was no possibility of convening an international conference. Meretz leader Yossi Sarid said he doubted any country would agree to attend such a meeting as long as negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians remained deadlocked.

NEXT STORY