Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech elicited mixed reactions Monday as Europe and the United States said called it a step forward for giving conditional backing to a Palestinian state while Palestinians reacted with fury and Israelis were mixed.
Under pressure from the U.S., Netanyahu endorsed for the first time the creation of a Palestinian state, provided it was demilitarized and that Palestinians recognize the Jewish character of Israel. He ruled out a halt to all Jewish settlement activity as demanded by the U.S.
EU, U.S. hail
"In my view it is a step in the right direction," said Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kohout, speaking on behalf of the European Union presidency as he arrived at a meeting of EU ministers in Luxembourg which discussed the speech.
"Of course, there are a number of other elements which need to be analyzed, but the acceptance of the Palestinian state is there," he added.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt echoed Kohout's caution. "The fact that he uttered the word state is a small step forward," Bildt, whose country takes over the EU presidency on July 1, told reporters.
The White House meanwhile issued an upbeat initial assessment.
President Obama "welcomes the important step forward" in Netanyahu's speech," his spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement.
Obama "believes this solution can and must ensure both Israel's security and the fulfillment of the Palestinians' legitimate aspirations for a viable state, and he welcomes Prime Minister Netanyahu's endorsement of that goal," it said.
Obama has called for a freeze on all settlement building in Palestinian territories and Netanyahu's rejection is likely to arouse international criticism.
While also acknowledging the "step forward," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said that Europe and the U.S. wanted "an immediate freeze to settlement activity and a reopening of the Gaza Strip."
Egypt sees complications
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said that Netanyahu's call for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state torpedoed the chance for peace.
"The call to recognize Israel as a Jewish state complicates things further and scuttles the possibilities for peace," state news agency MENA quoted Mubarak as saying, in the first comment by an Arab leader since Netanyahu gave his policy speech on Sunday.
Palestinians reacted with undisguised anger to Netanyahu's conditions for peace.
The Hamas movement which has controlled the Gaza Strip for two years said Netanyahu's address on Sunday reflected a "racist and extremist ideology."
"This speech reflects the racist and extremist ideology of Netanyahu and denies all the rights of the Palestinian people," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum told AFP.
"This speech is the reiteration of the policy of his government, which aims at transforming the Palestinian people into a tool to protect the occupation."
"The international community should confront this policy, through which Netanyahu wants to kill off any chance for peace," Abbas adviser Yasser Abd Rabbo told Reuters.
"They must isolate and confront this policy which Netanyahu is adopting and exert pressure on him so that he adheres to international legitimacy and the road map," he said, referring to the U.S.-sponsored 2003 peace plan.
"This speech torpedoes all peace initiatives in the region," Nabil Abu Rudeina, spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, told AFP.
"It hobbles all efforts to save the peace process, in a clear defiance of the U.S. administration," he said.
Netanyahu's speech met with circumspection across the political spectrum in Israel, which has seen almost two decades of stop-start talks about a "two-state solution," a concept the right-wing Likud party chief had long balked at endorsing.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak described Netanyahu's commitment to a demilitarized Palestinian state ais "a major step" in "the right direction."
But, several key Likud MPs responded furiously to his unprecedented endorsement of a Palestinian state, albeit demilitarized and stripped of Jerusalem as a capital.
"The prime minister caved in to American pressure. He will have to explain to his coalition why he was ready to go so far," Likud MP Danny Danon told AFP.
"We oppose a Palestinian state and do not believe it will happen. If he moves from words to actions, he will encounter a wall of resistance."
National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, a key partner in Netanyahu's coalition government, said that "accepting the principle of a Palestinian state was a grave mistake."
A senior political analyst in Israel's Maariv daily said that Netanyahu gave one of the most hardline speeches made by an Israeli premier in recent years to compensate for his ideological concession.
"The speech was thirty minutes of pure right-wing rhetoric to cover up one leftist phrase," Ben Caspit said.
Opposition left-wing MPs slammed Netanyahu's cautious peace overtures as not nearly enough.
"So much preparation for nothing. The prime minister proved again that he is the number one peace refusenik. Bibi chose to serve the needs of the settlers and the extreme--right rather than those of Israel," Meretz MP Ilan Gil-On said.
"Welcome, Mr. Prime Minister, to the 20th century. The problem is, we're already in the 21st century," political commentator Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv newspaper.