Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman planted a tree Monday in the isolated hilltop settlement of Itamar, as he called for new building to resume in all West Bank settlements once the moratorium on such activity ends September 26.
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“From September we must resume normal life here,” Lieberman told The Jerusalem Post during a tour of the Samaria region. “We do not have any intention to change the demographic situation or to create a provocation, but only to provide a normal life for the people that came here under the policies of [past] government[s].”
Although Lieberman lives in the Nokdim settlement near Jerusalem, Monday’s visit marks his first formal tour of West Bank Jewish communities, according to his spokeswoman.
Lieberman, who heads Israel Beiteinu, the second-largest party in the government, brought nine of his 15-member faction with him.
During the four-hour visit he and the other party members gave their support to the unauthorized outpost of Bruchin, spoke out against the Palestinian boycott of settlement products at the Barkan Industrial park, and toured the archeological site at Mount Gerizim.
Lieberman also planted the tree in Itamar, which is located outside the security barrier.
His visit, which was organized by the Samaria Regional Council, marks the first time a foreign minister has come to Itamar, a small hilltop community of 170 families, since its inception in 1984.
At each of his stops, Lieberman underscored the need for new construction to resume in the settlements.
Under the terms of the moratorium, work has continued on some 3,000 homes that were already being built, but there have been no new housing starts since the moratorium was imposed at the end of November.
Lieberman’s Samaria visit, which was planned well in advance, came just before Thursday’s Arab League vote on whether to support direct talks with Israel. The foreign minister said it was his understanding that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas planned to ask the league to oppose the resumption of direct negotiations with Israel, which were broken off in December 2008.
“Abu Mazen [Abbas] is looking for excuses not to sit down with Israel,” Lieberman said, adding that Israel had done everything it could to bring him back to the table. “Now it is all dependent on them [the Palestinians]. If they want to talk with us they will, and if they don’t want to, they won’t.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is under pressure to extend the 10- month moratorium on new housing starts as a gesture to the Palestinians to get them to talk with Israel. On Monday, according to media reports, Netanyahu said Israel would not extend the freeze.
Netanyahu noted that his cabinet declared the moratorium to encourage Palestinians to negotiate with Israel directly, instead of through the US, but that the moratorium was limited in time.
“It has not changed and that’s how it will be,” the prime minister said.
Lieberman told reporters during his Samaria tour that he would not support any further concessions with respect to settlement construction.
“Israel shouldn’t make any more gestures [with regard to building]. I would oppose them with all my might,” he said.
Lieberman distinguished, however, between construction in isolated settlements such as Itamar and those in the settlement blocs. In areas that Israel plans to retain under any final status agreement with the Palestinians, including Ariel, normal building should resume under the same terms as would occur within any Israeli community within the pre-1967 lines, he said.
In settlements outside the blocs, construction should accommodate natural growth, so that the normal life of people in places like Itamar can continue, Lieberman said.
“There is no reason that [people in the settlements] should not enjoy the same living conditions of all other Israeli citizens,” he said. “The residents of Samaria were sent here as emissaries of the government and their rights need to be respected.”
Earlier Monday, during a visit to the unauthorized outpost of Bruchin, he said that the community had been inappropriately labeled an outpost and should be recognized as a legal settlement. Speaking of Bruchin and of the plight of Samaria residents in general, Lieberman said that “the reality that residents of Bruchin face is unbearable.”
The designation of Bruchin as an outpost, he said, is the best example of the absurdity the 2005 report on the unauthorized outposts, authored for the government by private attorney Talia Sasson. According to Lieberman, one of the signatories on the initial authorizations to create a community there was Yitzhak Rabin, in 1984, when he was defense minister.
When families finally began to lay a cornerstone there in 1999, former defense minister Moshe Arens was present, said Lieberman. It was built with the help of the Construction and Housing Ministry, so it is “absurd” to consider this an illegal community, he said.
On Mount Gerizim, Lieberman said he supported steps to ease movement for West Bank Palestinians, as well as steps that improve their security. Back in November, he said, he had been among those supporting the 10-month moratorium with a “full heart.”
In freezing new housing starts, Israel had gone above and beyond what should have been required. "It was a gesture, a sign of good will,” he said, adding that Israeli citizens had “paid a price” for that gesture.
He added that the moratorium had be upheld until its last day.
During his tour, he drove up a hilltop that was filled with smoke from a series of blazes allegedly set by settlers who were angry that security forces earlier that morning had demolished an illegal home in an outpost. He noted that Israel knows how to act against illegal Jewish construction in Judea and Samaria, but has not done enough when it comes to illegal Palestinian construction.
He is a daily witness to that illegal Palestinian construction when he
drives from his home in Nokdim to Jerusalem, he said.
Lieberman asked Dani Dayan, who heads the Council of Jewish Communities
of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, to start to monitor illegal
Palestinian construction in the West Bank in the same way that left-wing
groups have monitored construction activity in the settlements.
He asked the council to produce monthly reports on the matter.
At a stop at the Shamir Salads factory in Barkan, he also pledged that
his faction would do its utmost in the Knesset to help factories that
had been harmed by the Palestinian boycott on products produced in West
Bank Jewish communities.