Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that several Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank would always remain part of Israel. His comment upset the Palestinians and undermines US efforts to restart talks aimed at eventually establishing a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu’s remarks came hours after the visit of US envoy George Mitchell who is on a mission to restart negotiations between Israel and Palestinians that have been stalled for over a year.
Netanyahu took the opportunity of the approaching holiday of Tu Bishvat, a Jewish arbor day, to reaffirm Israel’s claim to the Etzion bloc of settlements just south of Jerusalem. During a tree-planting ceremony in the settlement (photo, from bbc.co.uk) he said : “Our message is clear, we are planting here, we will stay here, we will build here. This place will be an inseparable part of the State of Israel for eternity.”
The Etzion settlements were settled by Jews before the Israeli state was established in 1948. After the 1948 war, the area became part of the West Bank under Jordanian control, and the settlements were destroyed. However, after Israel captured the territory from Jordan in the 1967 war, some settlers returned there immediately and the settlements were rebuilt.
Earlier, Netanyahu said he would also plant saplings in Maale Adumim and Ariel, two large settlement-cities that Israel also intends to keep.
The Israeli prime minister also said that the US envoy, with whom he had just met, presented what he described as “some interesting ideas” for resuming the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
“We are very much interested in doing so, and I expressed my hope that these ideas bring this about,” said Netanyahu.
But after meeting with Mitchell in Jordan on Sunday, Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said that it was “premature to talk about a real breakthrough,” according to the official Palestinian news agency, WAFA.
He added that Mr. Abbas had reassured Mr. Mitchell of his commitment to peace.
The spokesman also condemned Mr. Netanyahu’s tree-planting as “an unacceptable act that destroys all the efforts being exerted” by Mr. Mitchell, The Associated Press reported.
Even though they have expressed readiness for minor border adjustments in return for commensurate swaps of land, the Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem for a future Palestinian state. (map, from nytimes.com)
Benjamin Netanyahu has offered to begin peace talks without preconditions, and in a gesture to get the Palestinians to agree, in November he announced a halt to all new residential construction in the West Bank settlements for 10 months, which infuriated Jewish settlers.
But the Palestinians said the moratorium was insufficient because it allowed for the completion of about 2,500 homes already under construction and because it did not include East Jerusalem. Before resuming talks, the Palestinians continue to insist on a total Israeli freeze.
Last week, Netanyahu told foreign reporters in Jerusalem that the Palestinian leaders had “climbed up a tree” and “they like it up there.”
According to Palestinian officials, in addition to continuing to build in the settlements, the Israeli prime minister is trying to dictate the outcome of talks before they begin. Netanyahu has already stipulated that he will only entertain the idea of a demilitarized Palestinian state with limits on its sovereign powers.
On the eve of Mitchell’s visit in Jerusalem, in the session with the foreign reporters, Netanyahu said that the threat of rocket smuggling into the Palestinian territories would require Israel to maintain a presence “on the eastern side of a prospective Palestinian state,” meaning along the border with Jordan.
The answer of the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, is that “the only remaining obstacle to negotiations” was “the conditions Mr. Netanyahu continues to impose.”
He added that the Israeli demands erode “any foundation of hope for the two-state solution.”