Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged on Wednesday not to unilaterally withdraw from territory in the West Bank as part of any interim plan in the absence of a peace process.
“I will not uproot or evacuate settlements,” he said in a message he posted on his Facebook page on Wednesday clarifying comments he made Tuesday during a wide-ranging interview at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC. Netanyahu was scheduled to fly back to Israel Wednesday night after his two-day visit to the US capital, during which he met with US President Barack Obama.
On Wednesday morning, he also met with US Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss ways to restore to calm after weeks of violence across Israel.
The two men also spoke of ways to advance a diplomatic process and to make life easier for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Prior to his arrival, and again during his visit, US officials said they don’t believe it is possible to arrive at a twostate solution during Obama’s 14 months left in office. They added that it is even unlikely talks would be resumed in that time.
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One audience member at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank quizzed Netanyahu about his back-up plan to ensure Israel remained a Jewish and Democratic state in light of the frozen peace process.
“What is your plan B?” the participant asked.
Netanyahu responded: “Unilateralism works less well than a negotiated solution. The main problem that we have is the acceptance of the principle that Israel will take care of security in the areas west of the Jordan,” he said.
He later returned to the idea when he said, “Unilateralism, I suppose that is possible, but it would have to meet Israeli security criteria.
“It would require a broader international understanding than exists now,” Netanyahu continued, hinting that it could involve withdrawing from some portions of Area C in exchange for a continued military presence in those areas.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) has long argued that Netanyahu must have a plan for the day when negotiations with the Palestinians fail. He has repeatedly called for Israel to annex Area C of the West Bank, where all Israeli settlements are located.
Still, he said, Netanyahu’s comments at CAP sent a dangerous message to the Palestinians, because they appeared to indicate the prime minister could cede territory at a time when Palestinians are attacking Israelis.
“If terrorism pays, terrorism will increase,” Bennett said.
“Unilaterally giving land to Arabs is always a grave mistake. Talking about it at the height of a wave of terrorism sends the opposite message of what we need to send.”
According to the Bayit Yehudi chairman: “The enemy needs to be punished for terrorism and not be given a prize for murdering Jews.” Bennett added that the unilateral action Israel must take is to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
A Likud spokesman clarified that ”the interpretation of what the prime minister said yesterday in the US is wrong.”
Netanyahu on his Facebook page added: “I didn’t speak about a unilateral withdrawal, but rather about one-sided steps that could strengthen Israel’s security.”
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, however, said while he opposes unilateral moves, he interprets Netanyahu’s statements differently, pointing out that the two of them were against the 2005 disengagement from Gaza.
“I don’t know what the prime minister meant. I can’t assume or imagine that he meant unilateral withdrawal,” Erdan told Army Radio. “As someone who knows the prime minister... I do not believe that is what he meant.”
Erdan added: “Maybe he meant applying sovereignty to Area C, where there is a clear Jewish majority. I would support that.”
Similarly, Knesset Land of Israel Caucus chairmen Yoav Kisch (Likud) and Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) said: “We support the prime minister’s announcement that he will take unilateral steps in Judea and Samaria. After two months of non-stop terrorism, Israel must take unilateral steps of construction and annexation.”
They added that such action is the way to show the Palestinians that terror does not pay, and they will only lose in such confrontations, while Israel will come out stronger.
On the Left, MK Ilan Gilon (Meretz) also came out against Netanyahu’s statements, saying: “A one-sided step against the Palestinians is destined for failure. We see this in the failed results of the disengagement, which strengthened Hamas and turned Gaza into a greenhouse of despair and terrorism.”