Israel's incoming prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will tell visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday that his government will continue peace talks with the Palestinians, a lawmaker from Netanyahu's party said. Clinton is kicking off a two-day round of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on her first trip to the region as the top US diplomat.
"I think that Hillary Clinton, when she comes today, will find Benjamin Netanyahu prepared to continue to hold negotiations, not only on economic projects but also political negotiations, a political process," said Likud lawmaker Silvan Shalom, a former foreign minister. Netanyahu and Clinton were set to meet later in the day.
That message would mark a change in the hard-line Likud leader's long-stated position that peace talks are a waste of time because of the weakness of the Palestinian leadership. He has suggested in the past he would instead invest in the Palestinian economy while continuing Israel's military occupation of the West Bank indefinitely.
But Netanyahu appears to have altered his stance, at least outwardly, since Israel's national election last month, after which he was chosen to lead the country's next government. Freezing peace talks would set Israel up for a clash with the international community and the US, its most important ally.
But Shalom, who spoke to Army Radio, would not say that Netanyahu supports the creation of a Palestinian state, the key goal of U.S.-backed peace negotiations. Netanyahu also openly opposes any division of Jerusalem, a central Palestinian demand. Clinton arrived in Jerusalem on Monday evening from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, where she pledged $900 million in US aid at an international donors conference for rebuilding the Gaza Strip after Israel's offensive against its Hamas rulers. On Tuesday she is scheduled to meet Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, including Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, and members of Israel's outgoing government _ Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. On Wednesday, she is to call on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. Speaking at the Sharm el-Sheikh conference, Clinton said the Obama administration was committed to pushing intensively to find a way for Israelis and Palestinians to exist peacefully in separate states, and called for urgent action to forge a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.
Netanyahu has several weeks to form a new governing coalition. His attempts to bring Livni, his centrist rival, into a broad coalition government have failed so far, largely because of Netanyahu's refusal to embrace Livni's call for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
At present, it appears his most likely government is a narrow alliance of hard-line and Orthodox parties opposed to significant concessions for peace.