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Netanyahu will not talk to Palestinians: opposition chief

  • A former finance minister under Netanyahu, Lapid stood firm in opposition to Netanyahu following March elections.
15 Sep 2020

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has "no intention" of discussing peace with the Palestinians, opposition leader Yair Lapid told AFP ahead of the signing of landmark deals with the UAE and Bahrain.

US President Donald Trump will host a ceremony on Tuesday at which Netanyahu will sign normalisation deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the first Israel has agreed with an Arab state since the 1990s.

While centrist leader Lapid welcomed the Gulf deals, he argued Israel should also resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

"The current government is saying we have achieved agreements with moderate Sunni countries without paying the price of negotiating with the Palestinians. What I say is it's not a price. It's an Israeli interest," he told AFP at his parliamentary office.

The Palestinian leadership has slammed the Gulf deals for going against decades of consensus among Arab states that a Palestinian peace deal is a prerequisite for ties with Israel.

Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party, criticised the Palestinians for waiting for the Arab world and the international community to "do the job for them".

"They need to be proactive instead of victimising themselves forever, instead of complaining all the time," said Lapid, arguing the Palestinians' fundamental demands were unrealistic.

Palestinians have called for an independent state based on the borders that existed before the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel seized swathes of territory including east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

They have also called for refugees displaced since the creation of Israel in 1948 to be allowed to return along with their descendants.

"This is not going to work," said Lapid. "They need to go back to the table. We need to go back to the table."

The last round of peace talks dates back to the presidency of Barack Obama and collapsed in 2014.

The Palestinians have broken off all contacts with the Trump administration in protest at its unabashed support for Israel.

A controversial peace blueprint unveiled by Trump in January promised US blessing for Israel to annex swathes of the occupied West Bank, including the strategic Jordan Valley and all Jewish settlements.

Israel has since agreed to delay any West Bank annexations in return for normalisation with the UAE and the Palestinians have expressed willingness to resume negotiations, provided they are not on the basis of the Trump plan.

Lapid's office is decorated with photos of him with world leaders, including Germany's Angela Merkel and US presidential candidate Joe Biden, but Trump is notably absent.

"I think we need to move forward and discuss this with the Palestinians under the two-state solution, and I don't think this government is going to do anything about it," he said.

Lapid pointed to the legal woes of the prime minister, who is currently on trial for corruption, as a further reason peace talks were off the agenda.

A former finance minister under Netanyahu, Lapid stood firm in opposition to Netanyahu following March elections.

His former allies Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi defected to join Netanyahu's government and now serve as defence and foreign ministers respectively.

Pointing to the Gulf deals, Lapid said it was clear both ministers "have no influence whatsoever" in government.

Netanyahu "signed the deal with the Emirates and yet later with Bahrain without telling them. It's not only that he didn't consult with them. They didn't even know," Lapid said.

Netanyahu flew to the US just moments after announcing a second nationwide lockdown to tackle the coronavirus, a sign according to Lapid of the government's "complete failure" to address the health crisis.

"It's a very aggressive move. It's devastating for the economy and it's not that helpful in terms of stopping the epidemic," Lapid said.

According to an AFP tally over the past fortnight, Israel is second behind Bahrain for the world's highest coronavirus infection rate.

"The only reason our government has decided to go into the second lockdown is because they're completely lost," Lapid said.

Tens of thousands of Israelis have demonstrated in recent weeks, calling for Netanyahu to resign over the graft allegations and his handling of the pandemic and its economic fallout.