Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman kicked up a political dust storm on Wednesday, suggesting Israel reach understandings with the new Trump administration whereby it will be allowed to build inside the settlement blocs, while freezing construction in isolated settlements outside them.
Liberman, in a meeting in the Knesset with diplomatic correspondents, said Israel should seek understandings with the Trump administration as to where Israel can build in Judea and Samaria, along the lines George W.
Bush set out in his 2004 letter to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon.
“If we get permission from the new administration to build inside the settlement blocs, I think we need to grab it with both hands,” he said, even at the expense of freezing construction in isolated settlements outside the blocs, including in his home community of Nokdim.
The Bush letter that came prior to the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip read: “As part of a final-peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338. In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.
It is realistic to expect that any final-status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”
This, as well as informal understandings reached with the Bush administration, was interpreted in Israel as a green light to build inside the main settlement blocs, but not outside them. The Obama administration stated soon after taking power in 2009 that it was not bound by this letter.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office quickly issued a disclaimer denying Liberman’s position represented that of the government, saying that the prime minister will formulate Israel’s position to bring to the new administration after hearing the positions of the cabinet ministers.
Meanwhile, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely was more direct, saying that Liberman’s comments did not reflect the position of the government, but represented Liberman’s views alone.
“The new administration and the Israeli government will begin a dialogue, as is common, when Trump enters the White House, and any limitation on Israel’s right to build harms Israel’s interests at this time,” she said.
The heads of the Land of Israel Lobby in the Knesset, MKs Yoav Kisch (Likud) and Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi), said Liberman’s comments were a “strategic mistake,” and that the issue is for the entire cabinet to deal with, and not the sole prerogative of the defense minister.
“There is no reason why a right-wing government has to adopt the diplomatic plans of the Left,” they said in a statement.
The Zionist Union’s MK Tzipi Livni, meanwhile, said Liberman was correct, and instead of “going wild” over the Amona outpost, Jerusalem needed to anchor understandings with the new administration that were reached by Bush and Sharon.
Livni, a former foreign minister, said Israel needed to make clear that it would preserve the settlement blocs and not what is beyond them.
Liberman said the bill to retroactively legalize settlement outposts, which on Wednesday passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset, will not save Amona from the evacuation the High Court of Justice said must be done by December 25. He said it was “impossible to avoid” the evacuation of Amona, and that those who claim otherwise were simply misleading the public. The solution to Amona, he said, was to move the settlement to Shvut Rachel, a distance of just a few dozen kilometers away.
Liberman said that Israel received messages from Trump’s transition team to tone down comments and behave with “a bit more humility.” Immediately after the US elections last week, Education Minister Naftali Bennett said, “The era of a Palestinian state is over.”
Liberman said it was necessary for Israel to take a lower profile.
“The smartest thing we can do instead of giving declarations, is to sit patiently and wait to see who is in the administration, who is in the key jobs, and then coordinate positions,” he said. Liberman added, given that on January 20 Republicans will control both Congress and the presidency, “we should expect that we can come to understandings regarding the Middle East, the settlements and the Iranian issue. I hope we have the common sense not to run too fast and get overly excited.”
In addition to aiming to reach an agreement with the administration on the settlements, he also said that understandings should be sought regarding the Iranian issue. After saying he hopes the Trump administration will not remove the remaining restrictions on the Iranian financial system, and that Iran’s development of ballistic missiles should also be addressed, he counseled not to give advice to the new administration, but rather wait to see who fills the key national security positions and “have an intimate conversation with them.”
Although it is necessary to wait to see who fills key appointments, Liberman acknowledged that Vice President- elect Mike Pence was one of Israel’s “biggest friends” when he served as a congressman from 2001 to 2013 and during his tenure as governor of Indiana since 2013.
Asked whether he was concerned that US President Barack Obama would take some dramatic step at the UN on the Mideast in his remaining two months in office, Liberman said that Obama currently has many challenges to preserving his domestic legacy – including his signature healthcare program – and he doubted if the Mideast was now his highest priority.
Likewise, Liberman noted, Trump was elected because of domestic American concerns such as immigration, taxes and healthcare, not because of his positions on the Mideast or the Palestinian issue.
“His priorities will be directed there,” he said of the US president-elect’s domestic agenda. “In Trump’s case it is critical who will be the secretary of state, secretary of defense, national security adviser, secretary of the Treasury and attorney-general.”
Liberman did not express undue concern about the appointment of Steve Bannon as Trumps’ chief strategist, saying he doubted that Bannon – who has been accused of making antisemitic comments and giving a venue for antisemites on the Breitbart website he ran – will deal too much with the Middle East.
“I think it is premature to say that this [Bannon’s appointment] emboldens antisemites,” he said. “To draw conclusions now is not right.”
In reference to a possible French-led international Mideast peace conference in Paris, Liberman said that such a move – without Israel’s participation and in the waning days of the Obama administration – would be meaningless, even “grotesque.”
Asked about a massive $10 billion arms deal Russia is planning with Iran, Liberman said Israel has expressed its opposition to the transaction, but acknowledged that chances of stopping it were slim, since Russia acts first of all according to its own economic interests.
“There is no doubt that this does not give us much comfort,” Liberman said of the proposed deal that would sell advanced tanks, planes and artillery systems to the Iranians. “At the same time, the Russians are not asking us.” He characterized the proposed sale as far from a signed deal, but noted that Russia’s economic problems mean Moscow must look out for the country’s financial interests.
On domestic political matters, Liberman said he does not believe anyone in the coalition now has an interest in early elections. Despite his fierce criticism of Netanyahu before he joined the government in May, Liberman said he has known Netanyahu since 1988, and their relationship has had its “ups and downs.” In politics, he said, people “need to know how to get along, and I think now we get along. I hope it continues.”