Jerusalem: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu`s offer of a freeze on settlement building in exchange for Palestinian recognition of Israel`s Jewish identity was widely seen on Tuesday as a ploy to complicate US-backed peace efforts.
A day earlier, Netanyahu set out recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as his price for a renewal of a ban on construction in the occupied West Bank, seen as key to rescuing direct talks relaunched last month.
That demand was rejected out of hand by the Palestinians, who said it had "nothing to do with the peace process," and was also widely criticised by Israeli politicians and commentators as a political ploy to sabotage the talks.
Netanyahu`s proposal was little more than a "major diversionary ploy" cooked up in order to ease the crisis over the expiry of the freeze, the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper said in a scathing editorial.
Top-selling daily Yediot Aharonot said it was "implicit" from Netanyahu`s speech that he was "going to do everything to torpedo the negotiations with the Palestinians at their current stage.
"Netanyahu is searching for any possible trick to push the Palestinians into the position of being rejectionists," wrote Shimon Shiffer in an analysis headlined: "The Derailer."
A renewal of the ban on Jewish settlement building on occupied Palestinian land, which expired on September 26, is largely seen as the key to reviving the moribund peace talks that began three weeks earlier.
Despite huge diplomatic pressure to reimpose the freeze, especially from Washington, Netanyahu has refused to do so, while Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has said he will hold no further talks until the building stops.
"If the Palestinian leadership will unequivocally say to its people that it recognises Israel as the national state of the Jewish people, I will be ready to convene my cabinet and ask for another moratorium on building," Netanyahu said on Monday.
The Palestinians formally recognised Israel on the eve of the 1993 Oslo Accords, but have rejected demands to recognise its Jewish character because it would effectively renounce the right of return for refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
"When he demands that Abbas recognise Israel as a state of the Jewish people, he is offering assisted political suicide to the Palestinian leader," wrote Haaretz commentator Akiva Eldar.
Acknowledging that would be tantamount to "an upfront concession on the right of return," he said. "Netanyahu understands that this is an asset that is too precious and too complex for the Palestinians to just give up for cheap -- namely, a temporary, partial freeze on construction in settlements."
For one senior member of Netanyahu`s right-wing Likud party, the premier`s manouevre had practically ruled out any renewal of a building freeze in the West Bank.
"His proposal pushes off a building freeze and talks with the Palestinians," the Likud official told the Yediot.
"Negotiations with the Americans are at an impasse, so Netanyahu came up with a proposal to show that he is willing to continue the talks, but it is clear that the Palestinians will not agree."Therefore, there is virtually no chance that the construction freeze will be reinstated," he said.
Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state has never been one of the core issues for resolving the conflict, but since Netanyahu came to power in 2009, it has become one of his key demands in any eventual peace deal.
In Brussels, European diplomatic chief Catherine Ashton, asked for a reaction, said "we support the two democratic states living side by side in peace and security.
"We also stress that the future states of Palestine and Israel will need to fully guarantee equality to all their citizens," she added.
"Basically in the case of Israel this means whether they are Jewish or not," said spokeswoman Maja Kocijancik.