Hard-liners threaten Israeli leader

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Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline coalition partners have stepped up pressure on him, threatening to topple the government if it accepts a key Palestinian territorial demand during peace talks.

The warnings came as US Secretary of State John Kerry took a brief break after three days of talks with Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, jetting off to the Arab world to discuss his efforts before an expected return to Jerusalem.

In a sign that Mr Kerry is intensifying the pressure, a Palestinian official confirmed that the secretary asked Mr Abbas to recognise Israel as the Jewish homeland.

Mr Abbas has repeatedly rejected this Israeli demand, saying it would compromise the rights of Palestinian refugees and Israel’s Arab minority.

Mr Kerry was meeting with the leaders of Jordan and Saudi Arabia yesterday.

Before departing, Mr Kerry told reporters that he made some progress in his talks. He praised both Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu for making “difficult decisions.”

Under heavy US pressure, Israel and the Palestinians agreed last July to relaunch their first substantive talks in nearly five years.

With an April target date for an agreement looming, Mr Kerry has increased his involvement by presenting bridging proposals on this trip to try to reach a framework agreement that would spell out the terms for a final peace deal.

The apparent trade-off is Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish homeland, in exchange for Israel accepting its pre-1967 borders as the basis for border talks.

The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967, but would accept minor land swaps to allow Israel to keep some Jewish settlements.

So far, Mr Netanyahu has refused to commit to the pre-1967 lines as the starting point, at least in public. Mr Netanyahu, in turn, demands Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish homeland, a condition he says must be met to ensure the conflict ends.

“Opposition to recognising the Jewish state and our right to be here is continuing,” Mr Netanyahu told his Cabinet.

Mr Kerry said all of the core issues of the conflict fitted together like a “mosaic,” adding: “What a leader might be willing to do with respect to a compromise on one particular piece is dependent on what the other leader might be willing to do with respect to a different particular piece.”

Such talk has begun to unnerve Israeli hardliners who oppose a pull-back to the 1967 lines on both security and ideological grounds.

The Jewish Home, a hardline party affiliated with the Jewish settler movement in the West Bank, threatened to pull out of the coalition if Mr Netanyahu accepts the 1967 borders.

“A government that accepts the 1967 lines is committing national suicide. We will not be part of it and will try to replace it,” said Ayelet Shaked, a party official.

Mr Netanyahu’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said any final peace deal would have to redraw the borders to place Israeli Arabs on the Palestinian side.

Mr Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu Party and Mr Netanyahu’s Likud in a coalition that makes up the largest faction in parliament, and Mr Lieberman’s withdrawal would rob Mr Netanyahu of his parliamentary majority.

“There is no reason why they shouldn’t join their brothers the Palestinians under full Palestinian sovereignty and become citizens of the future Palestinian state,” Mr Lieberman said.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis has announced that he would travel to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan on May 24-26, his first visit to the Holy Land. The Pope told people gathered for his weekly Sunday blessing that he was announcing, “in the climate of joy that is typical of the Christmas season”, the three-day visit to Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.