JERUSALEM — An offer Monday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to freeze West Bank Jewish settlements in exchange for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state — instantly rejected by the Palestinians — was the latest complex maneuver engendering debate about his intentions.
The offer, made in a speech at the opening of the fall session of parliament, was aimed either at keeping talks with the Palestinians alive and his right-wing coalition partners in check, or at seeking to shift the burden of failure to the Palestinians and escape blame should the talks wither and die.
As part of a flurry of initiatives favored by Israel’s right that began Sunday, Netanyahu backed a measure that requires non-Jewish immigrants to take a loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state before they can become citizens. On Monday, his government supported a bill that would require a national referendum before any territory could be yielded in a peace deal.
“The last few days clearly are disturbing as to which direction all this is going,” Isaac Herzog, Israel’s welfare minister, who is from the Labor Party, said in a telephone interview. “It may all be in preparation for the big peace step, or it may be a political maneuver to regain control of the right.”
Netanyahu is facing particular competition on the right from his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who has made a loyalty oath for Arabs a central part of his political appeal to Jewish supporters and said there will be no peace with the Palestinians for at least a generation.
But Netanyahu also has to contend with American and other international pressure to resume a construction freeze on West Bank Jewish settlements. Friday, the Arab League backed a Palestinian vow not to return to direct U.S.-sponsored talks without a full settlement construction freeze. It gave the Obama administration another month to come up with a way to save the negotiations.
In his parliamentary speech, Netanyahu mentioned that he was considering U.S. proposals. He did not specify them, but they are known to include security guarantees and military hardware in exchange for a freeze extension of two to three months.
But Netanyahu said recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would be enough for now.
“If the Palestinian leadership will say unequivocally to its people that it recognizes Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, I will be ready to convene my government and request a further suspension of construction for a fixed period,” he said, referring to the expired 10-month construction moratorium.