JERUSALEM, Aug 28 (Agencies): UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres held talks with Israeli leaders Monday on his first visit since taking office, making a forceful argument for a two-state solution with the Palestinians and speaking of his “dream” for peace.
Guterres also spoke of what he called obstacles to peace when meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including Israeli settlement building and the need for Palestinian leaders to condemn “terrorism”.
“I dream that I will have the chance to see in the Holy Land two states able to live together in mutual recognition, but also in peace and security,” Guterres said in remarks at Netanyahu’s office.
He recalled past secret talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders at his office when he was prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002, saying it had exposed him to the difficulties of the peace process.
Guterres spoke of improving economic and social conditions for Palestinians to provide them with a “dividend” and incentive for peace.
The UN chief’s meeting with Netanyahu was part of his three-day visit that ends Wednesday and came with the two-state solution, long the focus of international diplomacy, under threat.
Earlier in the day he met Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, and is due in Ramallah on Tuesday for talks with Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas is visiting Turkey and is not expected to meet Guterres during the trip.
Guterres will then travel to the Gaza Strip on Wednesday.
After arriving on Sunday evening, the UN chief met Jason Greenblatt, a top aide to US President Donald Trump charged with pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
Greenblatt was part of a US delegation last week including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner that held talks with Netanyahu and Abbas. He remained in the region for further discussions.
Peace efforts have been at a standstill since April 2014 and Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank has continued.
Trump has said he wants to reach the “ultimate deal”, but he himself has cast doubt on the two-state solution, saying he could support a single state if it meant peace.
Such statements deeply concern Palestinians, while delighting right-wing Israelis who want their country to annex most of the West Bank.
The two-state solution envisions an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and has been the focus of international diplomacy since at least the early 1990s.
At the same time, many analysts say both Netanyahu and Abbas are not in position to make any major concessions for now.
Netanyahu faces pressure from his right-wing base not to do so and to continue settlement building, and there is little incentive at the moment for him to change course, some analysts say.
The 82-year-old Palestinian leader is unpopular and his Fatah party, based in the West Bank, continues to be divided from Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip.
While Guterres spoke at length in his public comments on Monday on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israeli leaders’ interests lie elsewhere for now.
Netanyahu pressed Guterres on the UN peacekeeping force in neighbouring Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, with Israeli officials having accused it of “blindness” to what they call an arms buildup by Hezbollah.
The trip comes as the UN Security Council debates renewing the force’s mandate for a year, with a vote expected on Wednesday.
Guterres told Netanyahu: “I will do everything in my capacity to make sure that UNIFIL fully meets its mandate.”
United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric has expressed “full confidence” in the force’s commander.
Netanyahu also spoke of what he sees as Israel’s arch-rival Iran seeking to expand its presence in the Middle East, particularly in neighbouring Syria.
He accused Iran of building sites to produce “precision-guided missiles” in both Syria and Lebanon.
“Iran is busy turning Syria into a base of military entrenchment and it wants to use Syria and Lebanon as war fronts (for) its declared goal to eradicate Israel,” Netanyahu said in English.
Beyond that, Netanyahu again accused UN bodies of bias against his country, saying they had “an absurd obsession with Israel”, and called on Guterres to address it.
Guterres, meanwhile, said: “To express that the right of existence of the state of Israel doesn’t exist or the wish to destroy the state of Israel is an unacceptable form of modern anti-Semitism.”
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted visiting UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday with blistering criticism of the international body’s treatment of Israel and accusing it of failing to prevent arms from being smuggled to Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah militants.
Netanyahu also claimed that Iran is building sites in Syria and Lebanon for the manufacture of “precision-guided missiles,” with the aim of deploying them against Israel.
Both Hezbollah fighters and Iran have backed President Bashar Assad’s government forces in the civil war that has ravaged Syria.
“Iran is busy turning Syria into a base of military entrenchment, and it wants to use Syria and Lebanon as warfronts against its declared goal to eradicate Israel,” Netanyahu said. “This is something Israel cannot accept. This is something the UN should not accept.”
The Israeli leader offered no specifics to support his allegations.
Guterres arrived on Sunday for a three-day visit to the region, his first since taking office at the beginning of the year. His meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders are aimed at encouraging the resumption of peace talks.
Speaking at a joint press conference with the UN chief, Netanyahu criticized the United Nations, saying that it fails to check Palestinian hate speech, “absurdly denies” Jewish connections to Jerusalem and has not stopped arms from reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon.
He was referring to a recent UN cultural agency resolution about Jerusalem that angered Israel, which said it diminishes Jewish ties to the city. Israel also criticized the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, for being, according to Israel, soft on Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces in the border area.
Guterres vowed that he will “do everything in my capacity” to ensure UNIFIL fulfills its obligations. The UN peacekeeping force’s mandate is up for renewal at the end of the month and Israel is pressing for the force to have an increased presence to better monitor and prevent what Israel says is Hezbollah building up its weapons.
“I understand the security concerns of Israel and I repeat that the idea or the intention or the will to destroy the state of Israel is something totally unacceptable from my perspective,” the UN chief said.
Earlier, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called on Guterres to curb what he described as “the discrimination against Israel” in some UN institutions.
Guterres, in turn, stressed his commitment to impartiality in “treating all states equally.” He said those who call for Israel’s destruction peddle in a “form of modern anti-Semitism” — though he also said he doesn’t always agree with the country’s policies.
During a visit to the Holocaust memorial before meeting Israeli leaders, he warned that anti-Semitism remains “alive and well” in today’s world and vowed to combat all forms of racism and bigotry.
“I believe that the horror of the Holocaust should be such that anti-Semitism should now be dead forever,” he said, adding how he was shocked “to listen to the chant of a group of neo-Nazis in a developed country in the world, chanting ‘blood and soil’, the slogan of the Nazis.”
Guterres will meet Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah on Tuesday in the West Bank. He is due in Gaza on Wednesday.