Howard Schneider
The Washington Post
March 26, 2009 - 12:00am

Israel's incoming prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said Wednesday that he will pursue peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, but he withheld any endorsement of an independent Palestinian state.

"I think that the Palestinians should understand that they have in our government a partner for peace, for security and for rapid economic development of the Palestinian economy," he told a business group in his most substantial remarks on the peace process since the Israeli elections in February.

"I will negotiate with the Palestinian Authority for peace," said Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party.

There was no mention of creating an independent state, a goal that has formed the basis of U.S. and Western-sponsored peace talks. President Obama reaffirmed U.S. support for the idea in comments in Washington on Tuesday, calling progress toward a Palestinian state "critical" to ending an "unsustainable" situation in which Palestinians live under Israeli-imposed restrictions and Israelis worry about their security.

Netanyahu has been deeply skeptical of the U.S.-backed peace process and has said he would prefer to focus on building the Palestinian economy in the West Bank rather than on political talks.

On Tuesday his government won the backing of the Labor Party, which has supported past peace talks with the Palestinians. But it is not clear how Labor's involvement will affect the tenor or policies of Israel's new governing coalition.

Palestinians say they worry that Netanyahu's government, which in addition to Labor includes other parties on the right of the Israeli political spectrum, will be more aggressive on such issues as West Bank settlement construction, which they feel undermines the possibility of a lasting peace agreement.


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