Arab construction workers atop a building in the Tekoa settlement..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to convince the Europeans of his commitment to a two-state solution, he should declare a construction freeze outside the main settlement blocs, European diplomatic officials said Tuesday.
Such a measure, one European source told The Jerusalem Post, would “make clear the prime minister is serious about maintaining the two-state option open. It would seriously enhance Israel's diplomatic credibility.”
The source was reacting to a Haaretz
story Tuesday that Netanyahu told EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini during their meeting last week that he wants to restart negotiations with the Palestinians and reach an understanding on the settlement blocs that Israel would retain under any agreement, so it would be clear where Israel would be able to build.
One Israeli official familiar with the Netanyahu-Mogherini talks told the Post
that the prime minister said there were clearly areas in the West Bank that would remain on the Palestinian side after an agreement, and there were areas that would clearly remain part of Israel after an agreement. He said the goal was to see whether it was was possible to come to understanding on the areas that would remain inside Israel, so that building there could take place.
According to the European official, the idea of delineating the settlement blocs is not new, and Netanyahu has for some time tried to convince individual EU member states to differentiate between condemning settlement construction taking place inside or outside the blocs.
Both the Europeans and the Americans make no distinction in their condemnations of construction beyond the Green Line, regardless whether it is taking place in Ramat Shlomo inside Jerusalem, Alon Shvut in the Gush Etzion bloc, or Har Bracha well beyond the security fence in Samaria.
The European source said that he doubted Netanyahu's idea would gain much traction, saying that “Europe needs more concrete steps to see it as credible.” He said the move seems “to be meant more to deflect pressure and communicate willingness by Netanyahu than [to represent] a concrete plan.”
Efforts to get a green light to build inside the settlement blocks are indeed not new, and go back to understandings former prime minster Ariel Sharon had with then president George W. Bush about where and how Israel could build in settlements. Those understandings were never adopted, however, by the Obama Administration.
Much of Israel's settlement construction in the last number of years has been inside the major settlement blocs, although Netanyahu – for political reasons – has been unwilling to declare that as policy, concerned that if he did so that would antagonize those on his right both within the Likud and the coalition.
David Makvosky, a member of US Secretary of State John Kerry's negotiating team during the talks that failed in 2013-2014, said earlier this month that 98 percent of the government tenders for settlement construction announced while those talks were ongoing – announcements that infuriated the Palestinians and the international community – took place inside the security fence.
Of that, 62% of the tenders were for 1.9% of the land that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly agreed during talks with then prime minster Ehud Olmert in 2008 would remain part of Israel.
The idea of defining the settlement blocs Israel would retain was blasted immediately by both the Palestinians and Bayit Yehudi.
The PLO's top negotiator Saeb Erekat issued a statement saying that the idea was “nothing new,” and called it a “request to continue illegal settlement construction with Palestinian consent.”
Erekat said that if Netanyahu “wants to have meaningful negotiations ending the occupation that began in 1967, he should recognize a Palestinian State on the 1967 border and honor Israel’s obligations including a halt of settlement construction and the release of the Palestinian prisoners.”
And from the right wing of his coalition, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Bayit Yehudi) responded with a thinly-veiled threat to break apart the coalition, which currently has the minimum 61 seats.
"If there is truth in the report, then the proposal is a dangerous precedent that clearly defies the first article in the government's guidelines: 'The Jewish people have an indisputable right to a sovereign state in the Land of Israel, its national and historic homeland,'" Ariel stated.
The Bayit Yehudi minister said he expects all components of the coalition, especially the prime minister, to follow the agreed-upon guidelines.
The Palestinian Authority on Tuesday dismissed the idea of conducting negotiations with Israel over the borders of settlement blocs in the West Bank.
Nabil Abu Rudaineh, spokesman for the PA presidency, said that any negotiations should be based on Israeli recognition of the pre-1967 lines as the basis for establishing an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
“There can be no partition or postponement of the final-status issues,” Abu Rudaineh said. “There should also be a full cessation of settlement construction and the release of prisoners incarcerated before the Oslo Accords in order for any negotiations to be credible.” Lahav Harkov contributed to this report