July 8, 2010 - 12:00am

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday he was prepared to discuss "right away" the future of Jewish settlements if Palestinians entered direct peace talks with Israel.

Asked on CNN's "Larry King Live" if he would extend beyond September a 10-month moratorium on housing starts in settlements in the occupied West Bank, Netanyahu said it was time for the

"Let's just get into the talks and one of the things we'll discuss right away is this issue of settlements and that's what I propose doing," he said.

Netanyahu was interviewed a day after a fence-mending meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House, where the Israeli leader repeated a call for a restart of peace negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"And I use this forum today, on the 'Larry King' show, to say, President Abbas, meet me, and let's talk peace. We all have our grievances. We all have our, you know, our questions and things that we want answered. But the most important thing is to get together, sit down in a room and begin to negotiate peace. You cannot resolve a conflict, you cannot successfully complete a peace negotiation if you don't start it," Netanyahu said.

"And I say let's start it right now, today, tomorrow, in Jerusalem, in Ramallah or anywhere else. I'm prepared to go to a warm city like New York or a cool city anywhere. Let's get on with the business of talking peace and concluding the peace agreement."

The prime minister said, "The whole settlement issue was supposed to be discussed in the final peace -- what are called final status peace negotiations, which means how to achieve a final peace. This is one of the issues we have to resolve.

Seven months ago, I did something quite extraordinary, that is, no other prime minister in Israel's history did this. I put on a temporary freeze of 10 months of new construction in the settlements in order to encourage the Palestinians to get into the peace talks. Seven months have passed by. They don't come in. They say, oh, we need now, another extension. And the answer is, right now, listen, we don't need any pretext and preconditions. Let's just get into the talks," he said.

"And one of the things we'll discuss, right away, is issues of settlements. And that's what I propose doing. In any case, what is important is to get down and talk. That's the important thing."

Direct talks on Palestinian statehood have been suspended since late 2008. Obama's Middle East mediator, George Mitchell, has been shuttling between Netanyahu and Abbas in so-called proximity talks.

The Palestinians insist on keeping Israel at arm's length until it makes certain things clear -- namely, what size and shape of Palestinian state is Netanyahu prepared to consider, and will its Jordan Valley be free of Israeli troops?

Earlier on Wednesday, Netanyahu said on ABC television's "Good Morning America" that Israel was prepared to take additional steps to ease Palestinian movement in the West Bank to coax Abbas into direct peace talks.

"The point is, we are prepared to do them. But what we want to see finally is one thing: We want President Abbas to grasp my hand ... to shake it, sit down and negotiate a final settlement of peace between Israel and the Palestinians," he said.

Addressing the Israeli-Arab conflict, Netanyahu told Larry King, "I think there's been a persistent refusal in many Arab quarters to recognize the state of Israel borders. I think the issue of borders is important. It's related to our security. But the issue of recognition, the basic recognition of the Jewish state that exists in the Middle East, that is the homeland of the Jewish people, that lives in peace and security with its neighbors, is something that is recognized by some.

Asked about the crisis surrounding the deadly commando raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship in late May, the Israeli premier said, "Turkey and Israel had an important relationship. Turkey's a very important country in the Middle East. I think that the relationship began to deteriorate with the Turkish policy, a new policy, that basically veers away from the West and I think Israel -- what has happened with Israel as a result of that policy and not its cause.

"But nevertheless, I look for every opportunity to see if we can stop this deterioration and somehow get things back to normal or relatively normal. Last week, I authorized a meeting with one of my senior ministers and the Turkish foreign minister. They met in Zurich, in the airport," Netanyahu told CNN.

"I can't tell you that something positive came out of it. But I want to feel, as prime minister of Israel, that I leave no stone unturned in the quest for -- the quest for a broader peace, and the quest of good relations with our neighbors. And even though it may not succeed right now, we'll keep trying."

Netanyahu then offered Israel's version of the raid, during which nine Turkish nationals were killed. "We were definitely sorry about the loss of life. But I'll tell you what happened. First of all, why do we check ships that go to Gaza? Because we are concerned with the flow of -- the possible flow of weaponry into Gaza. We've had, as I said, thousands of rockets fired on us.

"I think that what people fail to recognize is that there were six ships. Five of them were totally peaceful and nothing of substance happened. Our navy checked these ships. And we didn't have any incident. The sixth ship was very different. It had about 500 people on it, of which about 450 were peaceful people. But several dozen were activists of a very radical group that had apparently amassed steel rods, knives, communication equipment. They boarded differently than the other passengers, the other 450 passengers, boarded in one port in Turkey. They went through security checks. These people boarded in another port in Istanbul. They didn't go through any security checks. They had their own communication equipment. They had their own -- their own steel pipes and things that they brought on board.

"And when our Coast Guard effectively wanted to check this ship and make sure that it behaved the way the other five did, they were brutally attacked. You can see that in the films that were released. Our soldiers, our navy people were fighting for their lives," he said.

Asked by Larry King if he believes peace will come to the Middle East in his lifetime, Netanyahu said, "I think it's possible to achieve it, yes. Will we achieve it with the entire Middle East? That, I cannot say. Can we achieve it with the Palestinians? I say absolutely. I say that with conviction, because I think it's a question of a rightness for our people's perspective. There is already time. It's now. I think for many Palestinians, the time is now. And I'm prepared to make that effort.

"It requires a lot of courage. Maybe that's the quality that supersedes all others. Because if you don't have courage, everything else fails. But if you have it, then everything else is possible. We have the courage to make peace. And I hope -- I fervently hope that our Palestinian neighbors have similar courage. With the help of the United States, I think it can be done, yeah. Absolutely," the prime minister added.

On Tuesday, Larry King announced that he is retiring from his nightly CNN show after 25 years. His last show will air this fall.


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