Israel will not allow Palestinian projects in Area C, the West Bank territory under its control, unless it is given a green light to build in the settlement blocs, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday, according to Israeli diplomatic officials.
The comments came amid reports that Israel was weighing the freeing up of hundreds of hectares in Area C – which comprises some 60 percent of Judea and Samaria – for Palestinian projects. The Palestinians and the EU have been clamoring for permits to build industrial, residential and commercial projects in Area C for months and even years.
Speaking at a conference in Tel Aviv two weeks ago, Martin Indyk, former US Middle East envoy, said that during the final stages of the 2013-2014 peace negotiations, Israeli officials were willing to hand over portions of Area C to the Palestinian Authority and freeze settlement building.
“In the last night of the negotiations that I was involved in, the Israeli negotiators came with an offer of tens of thousand of dunams [thousands of hectares] of Area C, that they were prepared to give over to the Palestinian Authority’s control to build what they would want to on them, without the permit regime and so on,” he said. “And that came in the context of a settlement freeze.”
But Netanyahu, according to diplomatic officials, told Kerry on Tuesday that if the international community expects permission to be given to the Palestinians to build, Israel expects recognition of its right to build in the settlement blocs, in return. He also added that there would be no additional settlement freeze.
Netanyahu said that in any event, a restoration of calm is the first condition to any economic or security steps that Israel may take toward the Palestinians. In practice, Netanyahu said, the civilian projects that the Palestinians are interested in will only be possible if the level of violence is lowered and Israel’s security needs are met.
The comments came over more than four hours of talks that Netanyahu held with Kerry, shortly after his arrival in the country on Tuesday morning. Kerry also met with President Reuven Rivlin, before heading to Ramallah for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Part of the Netanyahu-Kerry meeting was held with only Netanyahu’s chief envoy to the Palestinians, Yitzhak Molcho, and the US’s current Middle East envoy, Frank Lowenstein, participating. Other officials, including Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and Interior Minister Silvan Shalom, the minister in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians, participated in various parts of the meeting.
At the start of his meeting with Netanyahu, Kerry – on his first visit to Israel in more than a year – said Israel has both a right and an obligation to defend itself against terrorism.
“Clearly no people anywhere should live with daily violence, with attacks in the streets, knives, or scissors, or cars,” he said. “It is very clear to us that the these acts of terrorism that have been taking place deserve the condemnation they are receiving. Today I express my complete condemnation for any act of terror that takes innocent lives, disrupts the day-today life of a nation.”
Kerry, at a joint photo opportunity with Netanyahu in the prime minister’s office, said he wanted to talk to Netanyahu about ways the international community can “push back” against the terrorism.
Kerry indicated that the meeting with Netanyahu would also focus on other regional issues, such as Syria and Islamic State.
“We all have an interest, needless to say, in working against this spasm of violence that is interrupting the daily life of too many nations,” he said.
Netanyahu, who greeted Kerry by calling him a “friend in our common effort to restore stability, security and peace,” said there could be no peace when there is an onslaught of terrorism.
Netanyahu said the international community should support Israel’s fight against terrorism, since the rest of the world is “experiencing this same assault by militant Islamists and the forces of terror.”
“It is not only our battle, it is everyone’s battle. It is the battle of civilization against barbarism,” he said.
Netanyahu, according to the officials, told the secretary of state that the main problem right now is Palestinian religious incitement – especially surrounding the Temple Mount – on social media.
In Ramallah, meanwhile, Kerry’s meeting with Abbas focused on ways of calming the situation, and came amid widespread Palestinian criticism of Kerry and the US administration.
“Kerry did not carry any new ideas to solve the current crisis,” one PA official said. The official added that Abbas warned during the meeting that Israel’s actions in Jerusalem and the West Bank were the cause of the current wave of violence.
Abbas demanded that the US put pressure on Israel to “stop its aggression and provocations against the Palestinians,” the official said.
PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat, who attended the meeting, said Abbas handed over to Kerry five “files.”
One file, Erekat said, was about the 95 Palestinians killed between October 13 and November 23, while another contains details about the bodies of Palestinian assailants held by Israel.
The three remaining files, according to Erekat, are related to settlement activities, Israeli “incitement” against Palestinians, and recent security measures taken by the IDF in the West Bank, in general, and Hebron, in particular.
Erekat said Abbas reiterated during the meeting his commitment to a two-state solution.
Abbas accused Israel of working toward destroying the two-state solution and “consolidating an apartheid regime” in the Palestinian territories.
Erekat quoted Abbas as telling Kerry that the Palestinians were “defending themselves” against Israeli measures.
Following the meeting in Ramallah, Kerry said he had a long and very constructive and serious conversation with Abbas.
“I want to say that I know the situation for Palestinians at this time is very dire, that there are extraordinary concerns, obviously, about the violence,” Kerry said. “I want to make it very clear that I’m here at the request of President [Barack] Obama to see what we can do to try to help contribute to calm and to restore people’s confidence in the ability of a two-state solution to still be viable, to be achieved at some point. We are committed to that, two states with two peoples living side by side in peace and security.”
Earlier, several Palestinian factions condemned Kerry’s statements in Jerusalem describing the Palestinian attacks as terrorism, and they said he was unwelcome in Ramallah.
The factions said Kerry’s statements were proof of “US support for Israeli terrorism.”
They called on the PA leadership to boycott Kerry because his statements were “offensive to the blood of the martyrs and a provocation against the feelings of our people.”
The factions, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and others, claimed that the main purpose of Kerry’s visit to the region was to “thwart the intifada.”
The factions said Kerry’s statements show that the US is “biased” in favor of Israel.
As Kerry was meeting with Abbas, representatives of Fatah and other Palestinian factions held a protest in the center of Ramallah and called for the expulsion of the US secretary of state from the city.
The protesters carried placards condemning Israeli “terrorism” and equating Israel with Islamic State. They also strongly condemned Kerry for describing the Palestinian attacks as terrorism and “fully endorsing the Israeli narrative.”
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.
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