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Israel under pressure to offer peace plan

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under mounting pressure to unveil a new plan for solving the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict or risk having the U.S. and international community move ahead with a strategy of their own.

Israel won some breathing space with the postponement last week of a meeting of international powers in Berlin, but American and European diplomats are continuing to prod Netanyahu to lay out his vision for restarting peace talks and ending the occupation of the West Bank. If he does not, diplomats warned, the so-called Mideast quartet — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — may attempt to jump-start the process by formally endorsing, for the first time, the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Netanyahu's government has vehemently opposed such a move.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signaled last week that international patience over the stalled peace process was growing thin and that the recent Arab world unrest made a resolution of the conflict more pressing. She promised "active American leadership" and a reinvigorated U.S. approach that would be announced in coming weeks.

"The status quo between Palestinians and Israelis is no more sustainable than the political systems that have crumbled in recent months," Clinton told an audience at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Washington. Some viewed the statement as a signal to Netanyahu to move quickly with his own plan.

"The Israelis are facing a bit of pressure with the way things are proceeding," said a Western diplomat in Israel, who did not want to be identified while speaking about the sensitive matter. "People are starting to look to the U.S. for some kind of action."

Netanyahu's conservative government formally endorsed a two-state solution at the start of his term two years ago, but U.S.-brokered peace talks later collapsed when Israel resumed settlement construction in the West Bank and the Palestinians walked away from negotiations in protest.

Netanyahu has been hinting that he plans to announce a bold initiative by May, when he is expected to visit the U.S. and may unveil his proposal during a speech to Congress. But his Cabinet, which includes right-wing parties opposed to ceding land for peace, appears divided.

Last month, Israeli government aides floated the idea of an interim peace plan with temporary borders, but the Palestinians rejected it. Now Netanyahu is considering handing the Palestinian Authority more control over certain areas in the West Bank or calling for an international conference aimed at restarting talks.

In a speech to European Union envoys last week, Netanyahu offered no clues. "I have not decided what to say, and when to say it," the prime minister reportedly told the group. On Thursday, Netanyahu struck a defiant tone, saying he would not succumb to outside pressure. "We will stand firm against anyone who attempts to dictate conditions to us that will leave us without security and without peace."

Government spokesman Mark Regev said the international community should be holding the Palestinians more responsible for the breakdown in talks.

"In some circles there is an automatic knee-jerk siding with the Palestinian position, and it makes Palestinians think they have a free pass," Regev said. "People are inadvertently hurting the peace process. If there were a serious message from the international community that the time has come to return to negotiations, there would be a much better chance at negotiations."

Moderate members of Netanyahu's Likud Party are urging the prime minister to seize the moment by offering a fresh approach.

"We should take an initiative," said Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor. "Time passing is not helping."

President Obama has said he wants to welcome a Palestinian state into the U.N. in September. Not coincidentally, that's also when the Palestinians are promising to take their statehood bid to the U.N. General Assembly, which most predict will approve it.

Though such a step may not change the reality in the Middle East, it would create momentum that many Israelis fear would reduce their leverage at future negotiations over borders and security guarantees.

Palestinian officials expressed disappointment at the delay in this month's quartet meeting. Palestinian official Saeb Erekat called the decision regrettable.

U.N. and EU representatives were hoping to use the meeting to push for a quartet statement endorsing the pre-1967 war borders, with agreed-upon swaps, as a basis for future talks. But U.S. officials argued for a delay, saying they first wanted a guarantee from the Palestinians that if such a statement were released, they would return to the negotiating table. The U.S. also worried that the move might lead Israel to boycott talks.

The Palestinians gave no clear indication that a quartet statement would be enough to persuade them to resume talks, officials said. Some Palestinian leaders are insisting that Israel must also agree to halt all settlement construction on land it seized during the 1967 Middle East War.

"Why should the quartet go out on a limb when there is no hard and fast assurance that the Palestinians would return to the table?" the Western diplomat in Israel said.

Public skepticism about peace talks among Palestinians has only hardened in recent months, with most urging Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to boycott the process unless Israeli settlement construction is halted, according to Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki.

"If he returns to talks, he makes the public very angry," Shikaki said. "My conclusion is he will not."

Palestinian leaders are nonetheless increasingly confident that their September statehood strategy is gaining steam. At an international donors conference in Brussels last week to aid the Palestinians, a U.N. report was released that praised Palestinian Authority institutions dealing with finance, law, education and infrastructure as being ready for statehood. But U.N. officials worry that progress could stall if a peace deal is not reached soon.

Israel staunchly opposes U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state, saying the Palestinians are trying to avoid the difficult decisions that should be made at the negotiating table.

Israeli analysts say Netanyahu's alternative plan, if he announces one, would need to be ambitious and detailed enough to rival the Palestinians' initiative. U.S. and European officials are pushing Netanyahu to formally embrace using the 1967 borders as a basis for talks, as some of his predecessors have done, and agree to East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.

Opposition leaders expressed doubt that Netanyahu's coalition would be able to overcome its differences to propose such a plan.

"I don't see in the current government a political plan for moving forward," said lawmaker Shaul Mofaz of the opposition Kadima party. Yet, he added, "a do-nothing policy is very dangerous for the future of Israel."

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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