Israeli PM: Military must remain in West Bank

AP News

3/8/2011 2:53:34 PM - AP News

Israel's prime minister declared Tuesday that his country must retain a strategic section of the West Bank under any future peace deal _ a position unlikely to win Palestinians over to his reported plan to offer them a temporary state.

In a rare visit to the occupied territory, Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters that Israel's security depends on maintaining a military presence in the Jordan Valley _ a strip of West Bank land along the border with Jordan. Without troops there, Israel fears militants could smuggle weapons into the West Bank.

"The Jordan Valley is Israel's line of defense," Netanyahu said atop a rocky hilltop overlooking the valley. "There is no alternative. It will remain that way in any future situation and any future deal. The military must remain here along the Jordan border."

Netanyahu has made similar comments in the past. But the location and the timing _ just as officials say he is working on a new diplomatic initiative _ were notable, signaling that any new plan would fall far short of Palestinian demands.

The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, for a future state. Israel captured all three areas in 1967, then withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Hamas militants overran Gaza two years later.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the Palestinians would not compromise on their demand for a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. He also rejected the idea of establishing a Palestinian state in interim borders.

"Israel is making a big mistake if it believes that it can keep our land forever," he said. "Israeli policy that tries to wriggle out of the two state solution will keep the region in an endless state of conflict."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak confirmed that plan was taking shape in an interview with The Wall Street Journal published Tuesday.

Barak also told the newspaper that Israel might seek an additional $20 billion in U.S. military aid to help it deal with potential threats arising from the turmoil in the Arab world.

Without making a "daring" peace offer, however, Israel cannot seek additional aid, Barak said. To that end, Netanyahu is likely to offer the Palestinians a state with temporary borders, he added.

A senior Israeli official said Netanyahu would outline his plan in a speech in the near future. The official said Netanyahu would try to rally international backing for his position on the Jordan Valley, and that Israel would seek compensation in return for turning over unspecified territory to the Palestinians. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the details of the plan are still being formulated.

In the past week, Israeli officials have said Netanyahu was considering a "phased approach" _ an apparent reference to a temporary state. Barak was the first to publicly spell that out.

It is not clear the U.S. would support the idea of an interim accord, given the Palestinians' adamant opposition.

A temporary state would not only give the Palestinians less territory than they demand, but Israel would also retain military control of the area. The Palestinians are also afraid that any temporary arrangement will become permanent.

"If and when Israel offers its own thoughts on how to move the process forward, we will be listening attentively," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington on Monday. "We do not know what the prime minister and his government are thinking at the present time."

Crowley said Washington is "trying to narrow gaps and try(ing) to find a way for the parties to return to direct negotiations."

U.S.-led peace talks, launched six months ago with the ambitious goal of striking a final deal by September, broke down shortly after they began over Israeli construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

The Palestinians demanded a freeze in both areas, but Israel refused, arguing that previous rounds of talks took place while settlement construction was under way and that the issue should be settled in negotiations.

Also Tuesday, Israel's military said it started transporting 40,000 tons of construction materials into the Gaza Strip in a new move aimed at easing its blockade of the coastal territory.

The weeklong operation will supply badly needed gravel for U.N. schools and other humanitarian projects.

Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after Hamas militants overran Gaza in 2007.

The blockade was eased last summer under international pressure. Israel still restricts construction materials, saying Hamas could use them to build bunkers.

Human rights groups and Palestinian officials said Tuesday's announcement falls far short of Gaza's needs.

_____________

Associated Press writer Josh Lederman reported from the Erez Crossing, on the border between Israel and Gaza.