When you meet with the most right-wing minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, you don’t expect him to devote most of the interview to peacemaking.
But that is exactly what happened with Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Bayit Yehudi), who used The Jerusalem Post to send a message to US President Donald Trump: He should make peace between Israel and the Palestinians and surrounding countries.
But he should do it using water, one of the more contentious and scarce resources in the Middle East.
Ariel’s diplomatic plan is called “economic peace,” the same term Netanyahu used when he returned to the Prime Minister’s Office eight years ago. It also sounds surprisingly like the late president Shimon Peres’s plans for a “New Middle East.”
“It’s wrong to do nothing,” Ariel said. “What can be done is economic peace: Take money from the world, from Jordan, and Egypt, and invest it in Judea and Samaria, including the areas under the Palestinian Authority.”
He laid out a vision in which the West Bank could be a conduit for utilities flowing between Israel and Jordan, utilities such as water, gas and electricity, which could both go through the territories and be used by its residents.
“Why shouldn’t people have as much water as they want?” he asked.
Ariel noted that thanks to the deal made by former prime minister Ariel Sharon, Israel already provides water to Jordan, and even so, supplies are scarce. Now that the Hashemite Kingdom has been flooded with Syrian refugees, it needs even more.
According to the plan, the infrastructure would be built by American companies, so the US would not need to supply money to Israel or to the PA. Ariel is also in favor of Transportation Minister Israel Katz’s plan to build a Gaza port (with proper security measures, of course).
“If President Trump organizes a regional conference and leads this effort, everyone will have water, gas and electricity,” Ariel said, adding that this should include Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Israel already helps supply water and gas to Gaza, but Ariel said that the utility situation can be vastly improved.
“We have not done enough. We can do more, and we should have done it long ago. We need to give [more] water to Gaza. We can’t let there not be water in Gaza. Why do we need to wait for anyone? This can change relations significantly. We can make the region better.”
Ariel said that unlike others on the Israeli Right, he is not disappointed with Trump.
But then again, he was not among those who believed he would be the messiah.
“I didn’t have great expectations from him,” he said. “I didn’t praise him when he was elected. I prefer to judge him on his actions. He is much better than [former president Barack] Obama, but that’s not saying much, because Obama was very hard on us.”
He listed the achievements so far. The Trump administration, he noted, did not condemn the Israeli approval and/or advancement of 5,500 settler housing units.
A settlement was created for the Amona residents without American protests. In addition, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley “represents Israel there just as well as our ambassador.”
Ariel praised the Trump administration for saying that Israel will not be affected by foreign aid cuts.
“I don’t know if it will stay this way for all four years, but of course it’s much better,” he said. “My question for our prime minister is, what do we want? I am not sure Netanyahu was clear enough with the US on what we want, and I don’t think the security cabinet received enough answers.”
Ariel is upset that the freeze has not been completely lifted on planning and building in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. Similarly, he is concerned by Netanyahu’s acceptance, in principle, of placing constraints on settlement building.
“I expect our prime minister to tell the US we’re building,” he said. “The Saudis aren’t asking them where to build. No country asks the US where to build, certainly not in its capital, definitely not in Jerusalem.”
The full impact of the settlement restrictions, announced after last week’s cabinet meeting, that limit building to the community’s footprint have yet to be understood, Ariel said.
The best way to test it, Ariel said, is to see if the Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria meets after Passover in May, to advance and approve new plans.
He opposes any plan that might be under discussion between Israel and the US that distinguishes settlement blocs from other communities in Judea and Samaria, explaining that it is a left-wing concept that weakens Israel’s hold on all of Area C.
Ariel is among the most outspoken of politicians when it comes to pushing for annexation, the application of sovereignty on Area C, starting with the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement.
But if the question is sovereignty, he cannot overlook the Temple Mount, which Israel controls but which is managed by the Wakf Islamic religious trust and is under the custodianship of Jordan’s King Abdullah.
Fifty years ago, he was jubilant when the Six Day War ended and the Old City, with Judaism’s holiest site – the Temple Mount – was under Israeli control for the first time in 2,000 years.
Since then, events have advanced in a positive direction, he said.
“Now we are at a low point. I can’t go onto the Temple Mount, even though I am a minister for the State of Israel. We are talking about sovereignty in Ma’aleh Adumim; why shouldn’t we fully execute sovereignty on the Temple Mount?” he asked.
Asked why he did not quit the government or at least Bayit Yehudi, after party chairman Naftali Bennett expressed support for limited restraint in construction, Ariel said he considered alternatives and knows when the right time would be to leave.
A hasty exit underscores a point, but does not always have impact, he said.
“We left [the government] under [former prime minister Yitzhak] Shamir, and we got [the] Oslo [Accords]. Was that good?” he asked.
At the same time, he said, “You do not sit [in the government] any price.”
His redline would be a governmental decision to uproot a settlement.
The demolition of the Amona outpost in February does not count, because it was removed by the Supreme Court, not the government.
Ariel’s future in Bayit Yehudi is in doubt. He has received an impression from Bennett that he does not intend to continue his partnership with the more right-wing Tekuma Party which Ariel leads.
“Despite many attempts to reach an agreement, it’s not happening,” he said. “It’s apparently not coincidental. People who talk to Bennett have gotten the impression he wants to go more to the Center and be more “Israeli.” He wants to be a less religious party and to put less emphasis on the Right as well. Where it will stop, I don’t know.”
Ariel believes he can run alone and cross the 3.25% electoral threshold, but he is ready to check other options, such as running for Knesset allied with former Shas chairman Eli Yishai.
“We need to start thinking about it and not be hostages of Bennett,” he said. “I don’t think an election is on the way, but in Israel you can expect that unexpected things happen. I don’t think anyone wants an election. Then again, in Israeli politics, accidents happen.”
Ariel will visit the US next month to speak at a Jerusalem Day salute event organized by Jerusalem Post columnist Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in New York. While he is in the US, he will have meetings to advance Israel’s agriculture and trade, where he will discuss importing more grain and possibly meat.
After years of heading the Knesset lobby for Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, that remains one issue on which Ariel is unsatisfied with the US. Pollard was released from prison on parole after serving 30 years for passing information to Israel, but his parole conditions prevent him from leaving New York, let alone coming to Israel.
“After all the years in prison, I am just happy that he will get to enjoy the Seder with his family, even though not yet with his people,” Ariel said. “He has made progress, but he has not yet gotten to the Promised Land. As a kohen, I pray for his complete freedom.”