Israel should build in the West Bank settlement blocs except for the “controversial” area of E1, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid told The Jerusalem Post on Monday as he put forward a plan to separate from the Palestinians.
“Let’s unfreeze the places we can unfreeze,” Lapid said on the sidelines of the second regional business conference in the West Bank city of Ma’aleh Adumim.
He referenced what many on the Israeli Right believe is a de facto settlement freeze by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which in the last year has approved very few new Jewish building plans in Judea and Samaria.
In both his private and his public comments in Ma’aleh Adumim, Lapid gave a plug for renewed building in the third-largest Jewish city in the West Bank, which is home to more than 34,000 people.
Building there has lagged that of the other four largest West Bank settlements in recent years, with fewer than 300 new homes having been finished there in the last five years.
“Let’s not wait for doomsday,” Lapid said as he explained that there are steps Israel can take to help jumpstart the frozen diplomatic process with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This includes clarifying Israel’s position with regard to West Bank settlements.
“Let’s talk about the practical things that can be done now – unfreezing Ma’aleh Adumim,” said Lapid.
Lapid told the Post he believes Israel should make a distinction between the controversial isolated Jewish communities in the West Bank and non-controversial settlements in the blocs – such as Ma’aleh Adumim.
While E1 is an unbuilt area of the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement, American pressure has kept Israel from building there for more than two decades.
“E1 is controversial and so we should deal with it as with other places that are controversial,” he said.
In a diplomatic and economic address he made at the conference, Lapid called on the government to freeze Jewish building in isolated settlement in exchange for building in the blocs.
“Under those conditions, the government could have demanded, and achieved, a cancellation of the EU labeling in places like the Golan Heights and Ma’aleh Adumim, which everyone understands will remain a part of Israel,” he said.
“In the past six months, I’ve spent a considerable amount of my time campaigning for Israel’s image abroad. I’m telling you it can be changed, it can be improved, we can make people and countries change their minds,” he said.
“If I was prime minister tomorrow, that’s a deal I would make. Building in the blocs, in Ma’aleh Adumim, Ariel, Gush Etzion – in exchange for a freeze outside the blocs.”
His Yesh Atid party and centrist Israelis believe that “Ma’aleh Adumim is a part of Israel. It will always be a part of Israel. There is no future agreement [for a two-state solution] in which it is not a part of Israel,” Lapid said.
But the city lacks approved building plans to allow for new construction because it is “paying a price for the fact that the State of Israel refuses to clearly differentiate between the settlement blocs and the settlements outside them,” he said.
If the government would simply say: “We’re building in Ma’aleh Adumim because that is within the blocs, but not in Yitzhar and Tapuah because they aren’t... the Americans, the world, would remove their objection to building, and Ma’aleh Adumim would receive the growth it deserves.”
Israel has not made such a clear ideological statement because the Left wants to give Area C of the West Bank to the Palestinians and the Right doesn’t want to hand them anything.
He insisted that the concept of the settlement blocs, which was recognized by former US presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, is still relevant.
“There is such a thing as settlement blocs. They are part of life, they are part of the political discourse, let’s not pretend they don’t exist,” he said.
Lapid sympathizes with those Israelis on the Right who believe it is wrong to make such a political distinction with the West Bank, which is Israel’s biblical heartland.
“But there is a political reality, and a demographic reality, and a security reality, and an international reality,” Lapid said.
“The plan I’m offering is clear. Build in the blocs, freeze outside the blocs, work to cancel the EU labeling of products here and in the Golan Heights, change the way Israel works in the international arena, separation from the Palestinians. I’m not talking about peace, but separation,” he said.
“I do not think there will be peace in the near future,” he told the Post.
Therefore, he said, it’s important that security cooperation continue with the Palestinians and that the IDF retain the ability to enter Palestinian cities such as Ramallah and Nablus to protect Israeli citizens so Hamas does not seize control of that territory.
The next step diplomatic step that needs to happen, he believes, is a regional summit with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf countries to discuss separating from the Palestinians.
Israel should be building its alliances with those countries so it can help them battle regional terror and Iranian military aggression.
Ma’aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel, who is a long time member of the Likud party, said he welcomed Lapid’s visit and his strong words in support of the city despite his comments regarding E1.
Just last week, Israeli officials clarified that Netanyahu is not prepared to support building in E1 at this time.
“It’s clear that we have to build in E1,” said Kashriel. But in the interim, the government can approve other plans that would allow him to construct some 1,500 new units in his city, the mayor said.