Netanyahu steps up demands, wants settlers to remain in Palestinian state

The Israeli prime minister tells reporters he wouldn’t ‘uproot’ a single Israeli. Netanyahu’s office later explains that the object of the new demand is to score points against the Palestinian Authority by ‘exposing its real face.’

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem, June 27, 2013. (State Dept. Photo)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem, June 27, 2013. (State Dept. Photo)

A couple of statements from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu are adding to the confusion over the kind of solution he envisions, if he supports one at all.

Answering a question from a reporter in Davos regarding the possible evacuation of Jordan Valley settlements – Israel seeks to keep IDF forces along the Jordan River even after any withdrawal – Netanyahu said that he “wouldn’t uproot a single Israeli” as part of a peace deal.

Haaretz, which was the first to report the comment, used caution, allowing readers to understand that Netanyahu might have referred to the settlements in the Jordan Valley, and not the evacuation of any settlement. Yesterday (Sunday), however, Israel Hayom, which keeps its reporting in line with the prime minister’s spin at all times, used the broad interpretation, allowing readers to understand that Netanyahu will not forcefully evacuate settlers regardless of their location.

Later that day came a sort of explanation, when a source in the Prime Minister’s Office, who spoke on condition of anonymity but on the record, told the Israeli media that Netanyahu would like settlers to have the option to remain in the settlements after the establishment of a Palestinian state. The source didn’t explain what arrangement Netanyahu envisioned for the settlers: whether they would remain under Israeli control or accept Palestinian sovereignty.

Sure enough, the settlers were quick to attack the prime minister for his latest “capitulation.” That’s part of Israel’s political theater: no matter how hawkish the government is, there will always be someone to its right. The truth is that it doesn’t really matter. In previous weeks Netanyahu has raised just about any possible idea that could make the notion of a Palestinian state meaningless. First it was the demand for Israeli to be recognized “as a Jewish state” (rather than to just recognize the State of Israel); then it was a long-term IDF presence in the Jordan Valley – which would turn the Palestinian state into an enclave inside Israel; then came the introduction of a new settlement bloc that should be annexed to Israel (in the greater Ramallah area); then the rejection of any territorial compromise in Jerusalem; and now, finally, the idea of leaving the settlers inside a Palestinian state. I’ve lost count of the “principles” and “core values” Netanyahu would have to abandon if he is actually ever to sign a deal.

As with the rest of his ideas, this latest one is not something Netanyahu came up with on his own. One-staters have offered alternative models for solutions that considered leaving the settlements where they are, but that was always part of bigger picture – one that would restrict Palestinian access to the rest of the land.

Netanyahu isn’t interested in any of this, of course. He would like to leave the settlers as a time bomb inside the Palestinian state – a community that will cause the kind of mayhem which would eventually force the IDF to take over the territory. It is worth remembering how Netanyahu boasted about finding loopholes that helped him derail the Oslo process. There is no reason to think that his have tactics changed that much. But all this is just a theoretical exercise; Netanyahu will not agree to a viable Palestinian state, with or without settlers. Today, answering Naftali Bennett, the Prime Minister’s Office practically explained that the new demand is about scoring points against the Palestinians, and not much else.

No Israeli prime minister has ever suggested the Palestinians receive a full state on pre-1967 borders. Not even Olmert, though he probably came the closest, in his lame duck days (it’s worth reading Nathan Thrall’s summary at NYRB on this issue, which is based, among other things, on Elliott Abrams’s recent book). But Netanyahu is probably the furthest away from the idea. He isn’t even negotiating with the Palestinians, but rather with the U.S. (and indirectly, with Europe). His goal is to reach a deal that would lift mounting international pressure off of Israel at the lowest possible cost. In fact, negotiating forever is probably his best option, since Israel is basically given a free hand in the West Bank as long as the talks continue.

It is worth noting that while Netanyahu’s latest demand has no chance of being taken seriously outside the usual echo-chamber of Jerusalem’s domestic propaganda, such ideas continue to poison relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel; it treats Palestinian citizens of Israel – an indigenous minority – as equal to the settlers, who were relocated by Israel under military occupation and whose claims to the land are rejected even by Israel’s closest allies.

“Just as Israel has an Arab minority, there is no logical reason why the Palestinian state could not contain a Jewish minority and that Jews living in Judea and Samaria would be given the option to stay,” said the source in the PMO to the press yesterday. Just like the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state or Avigdor Lieberman’s population swap plan, these ideas show that in the eyes of the Israeli government, Palestinian citizenship in Israel is always contested.

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