JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's leader on Monday reiterated his support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, seeking to persuade critics that he remains committed to peace as he prepares to bring a polarizing hardliner into his Cabinet.
Benjamin Netanyahu said he would seek peace with the Palestinians, even while giving a cool reception to a new French peace initiative.
"The Palestinians will have the possibility to build a state of their own, but this state must be demilitarized and recognize Israel as the Jewish state," he told parliament.
Since taking office in 2009, Netanyahu has repeatedly said he supports a "two-state solution" with the Palestinians. But U.S.-led peace efforts have made little headway due to wide gaps between the Israeli and Palestinian positions. The Palestinians, along with the international community, have accused Netanyahu of undermining hopes for peace by expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the heartland of a hoped-for Palestinian state.
Questions about his intentions have deepened since Netanyahu last week invited the hard-line Yisrael Beitenu party to join his coalition. He reportedly has offered the party's leader, Avigdor Lieberman, the sensitive post of defense minister as part of the emerging deal.
Lieberman is one of Israel's most controversial politicians and has been a vocal skeptic of peace efforts. He is expected to join the Cabinet as soon as Tuesday.
Earlier Monday, Netanyahu gave a cool reception to France's plan to hold a peace conference next month, telling the visiting French prime minister that peace can only be achieved through direct negotiations.
France is hosting the conference in Paris in June in hopes of reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls is visiting the region in a bid to rouse support for the initiative. Israel and the Palestinians have not been invited, though the Palestinians have welcomed the French proposal.
"Peace just does not get achieved through international conferences," Netanyahu said. "It doesn't get to fruition through international dictates, committees from countries around the world who are sitting, seeking to decide our fate and our security when they have no direct stake."
Netanyahu said he would be willing to accept a French initiative that brought him and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas together in a room alone to discuss the conflict's most intractable issues. Valls said he would deliver the message to the French president. "We support anything that can contribute to peace and direct negotiations," Valls said.
Speaking at the opening of the Israeli parliament's summer session, Netanyahu told lawmakers that he is prepared to take "brave steps" for peace. But he gave no details on what these steps might be. The Palestinians have said that Netanyahu has added so many conditions that it is not even worth negotiating with him.
Addressing the same session, opposition leader Isaac Herzog accused Netanyahu of "slamming the door" to peace and becoming a "hostage" to political extremists. Netanyahu's Cabinet is dominated by West Bank settlers or religious and nationalist ideologues who oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state.
"I am sorry that you are the one who slammed the door. I am sorry that you chose to abandon the good of the country in favor of your political interests," Herzog said.
Netanyahu later returned to the podium and said "the door is still open" to national reconciliation and a region-wide peace.