PM: Settlement blocs indisputable part of Israel

Netanyahu plants tree in Gush Etzion, will travel to Ma'aleh Adumim, Ariel in honor of Tu B'Shvat.

January 25, 2010 06:01
Netanyahu plants a tree at Kfar Etzion, Sunday

Netanyahu plants a tree at Kfar Etzion, Sunday. (photo credit: GPO)

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised to build in the settlement cities of Ariel and Ma'aleh Adumim, as well as in Gush Etzion, only hours after US special envoy George Mitchell left Israel without showing any tangible signs that he had moved Israel or the Palestinians closer to the negotiating table.

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The Palestinians have insisted they will only speak with Israel after it has stopped building in West Bank settlements and in east Jerusalem.

After meeting with Mitchell on Sunday morning, Netanyahu told the cabinet, he "heard some interesting ideas for resuming the diplomatic process. We have consistently been interested in doing so, and I expressed my hope that these new ideas would make possible a renewal of the process."

In the afternoon, however, he reaffirmed his commitment to the settlement blocs of Ariel, Ma'aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion when he called them an indisputable part of Israel.

In advance of Tu Bishvat, which marks the new year for trees, Netanyahu planted a tree both in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion in Gush Etzion and in Ma'aleh Adumim. It was Netanyahu's first visit to West Bank settlements since he took office at the end of last March.

He also promised to plant a tree in Ariel.

With these trees, Netanyahu said he wanted to "send a clear message that we are here. We will stay here. We are planning and we are building."

He added that these three settlement concentrations - Gush Etzion, Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel - are an "indisputable part of Israel forever. This is an idea that is accepted by the majority of Israelis" and is part of international agreements, Netanyahu said.

He spoke in the small museum dedicated to those the 240 residents and defenders of the initial Gush Etzion bloc who were massacred by the Arab forces during the 1948 War of Independence.

Outside the museum, he picked up a shovel, and planted a tree, together with the great-grandson of one of the massacre victims.

A white sign stuck in the dirt identified the sapling as the one which had been planted by Netanyahu.

A short distance away, several dozen people gathered by the police barricade. Some said they had come to show their support for Netanyahu while others said they were there to protest his visit.

In Ma'aleh Adumim, at a ceremony with city officials and the Jewish National Fund, Netanyahu once again reaffirmed Israel's ties with the settlement blocs and with Ma'aleh Adumim.

"We will build here as part of greater Jerusalem," said Netanyahu.

"I came here from Gush Etzion, which is Jerusalem's southern gate. Now we're in Ma'aleh Adumim which is Jerusalem's eastern gate. Close to Tu Bishvat I will plant a tree in Ariel, just as we planted a college there which has turned into Ariel University."

His words come in the midst of a 10-month moratorium on new construction in the settlements, a move that has sown seeds of doubt in the minds of many regarding his commitment to the settlement movement.

The heads of the three settlement concentrations, all of whom are members of the Likud party, have in the past attacked Netanyahu for instituting the freeze in late November.

On Sunday, however, Ma'aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel said he saw Netanyahu's visit as a significant gesture, particularly given that he made it on the same day that he met with Mitchell.

Gush Etzion Regional Council Chairman Shaul Goldstein said that Netanyahu's words were very important, even though they did not go as far as he would have liked.

"His statements were very powerful and meaningful - that we are going to stay here forever. It is a very clear statement to the world," he said.

Although Netanyahu did not make it to Ariel on Sunday, the Knesset's Economic Affairs Committee paid the city a visit.

The committee's three-hour long visit included meetings with Ariel Mayor Ron Nahman and government ministry representatives, as well as a tour of the city, including the Ariel University Center of Samaria and the city's industrial areas.

"Ariel will be under Israeli authority as part of any final-status arrangement. Its location is strategic for Israel's security," said committee chairman Ophir Akunis (Likud), considered one of Netanyahu's closest supporters in the Likud Knesset faction.

"We came here in order to help the city, also in this period of moratorium, in areas including transportation, infrastructure, industry and trade," Akunis added. "The decision to turn the college into a university is also part of the vision of Ariel as a city and with Israel forever."

Akunis headed the Knesset delegation, which held a symbolic committee meeting in Ariel, on the subject of "Opportunities and risks in developing a city in Samaria."

With the exception of MK Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich (Kadima), who holds an alternate seat on the committee, only coalition members of the participated in the visit.

The Palestinians reacted strongly to Netanyahu's gestures toward the settlements on Sunday.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's aide Nabil Abu Rudeineh said it undermined peace prospects.

"This is an unacceptable act that destroys all the efforts being exerted by Senator Mitchell in order to bring the parties back to the negotiating table," he said.

Contacts with the Americans would continue, he said, but a return to negotiations with Israel appeared unlikely anytime soon.

In a meeting with Mitchell Friday, Abbas stood firm by his demand for a total settlement freeze.

Still at the cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu struck a hopeful note that progress could be made with the Palestinians.

He said that if the Palestinians could show interest in new ideas proposed by Mitchell, "then we will find ourselves in a diplomatic process, and that is something important to them and to us, and to all who strive to advance peace and reconciliation in our region."

Netanyahu did not reveal Mitchell's new ideas at the cabinet meting, and his office was not forthcoming.

One proposal Mitchell is believed to have discussed was launching the talks under the umbrella of a regional peace conference, which would include Lebanon and Syria as well, and which all sides would attend without any preconditions.

This would be a face-saving way for Abbas to enter talks, even though Israel did not agree to his condition of a total construction halt beyond the Green Line, including east Jerusalem.

After four days in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Mitchell travelled to Lebanon and Syria before going to Jordan, and this idea is not one that is believed to have picked up a lot of traction in those countries.

Abdullah, according to Jordan's Petra news agency, called in his meeting with Mitchell for a "more vigorous US effort to launch serious and time-linked peace negotiations to achieve the two-state solution within a comprehensive regional context."

The king, according to the report, also told Mitchell of the need for continued international support of the Palestinian Authority and Abbas.

AP contributed to this report.

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