'Netanyahu missed historic opportunity on settlements'

Government distances itself from Washington in setting new construction guidelines.

Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Benjamin Netanyahu
Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) slammed the government’s new settlement guidelines, saying they represent a historic and strategic “missed opportunity,” just hours after he said the arrangement seemed “completely okay in theory.”
Before entering Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting, Bennett told reporters that the security cabinet on Thursday evening accepted the new settlement construction policy presented by the prime minister.
Bennett, a member of the security cabinet, termed the policy as “balanced” and one that ensures “the continuation of construction in Judea and Samaria, without demographic restrictions with certain limitations.”
Netanyahu: The government supports the settlements in any time
He was referring to the new policy making no distinction between settlements inside and outside the settlement blocs or security fence.
The policy was announced after the security cabinet approved construction of a new settlement for the evacuees from Amona. Under its guidelines, Israel will restrain settlement construction – in consideration of US President Donald Trump’s efforts to restart the diplomatic process and limit building to inside built-up areas of existing settlements, either adjacent to them or as close as possible.
“On the face of it, this looks like a suitable arrangement,” Bennett said. The test, he added, will be in the policy’s implementation.
“I said to the prime minister that in theory it sounds okay,” he said. “We will see in the coming months the implementation by the prime minister and Defense Ministry, and according to that we will make our future decisions.”
In a Twitter thread a few hours later, however, Bennett changed his tone. Although he again said the policy was balanced, he added, “This is a strategic missed opportunity.
Instead of presenting an alternative (the sovereignty plan in Area C, autonomy, etc.), we were passive, and returned to the ‘same old’ of two states that will not lead to anything, except frustration.”
Bennett wrote that since a two-state solution is Netanyahu’s stated policy, “I cannot complain.”
He said that Bayit Yehudi has made accomplishments with its eight Knesset seats, but that “for a paradigmatic shift from withdrawals/[the] Bar-Ilan [speech] toward sovereignty and autonomy, we need 25 Knesset seats. Ask what is the difference between us and the Likud, and that is the difference.
For a continuation of tactical management and maneuvering, the Likud is okay. But for a deep change, only Bayit Yehudi can do that.”
Bennett wrote that the “story” is not Trump, but the Israeli government.
“Since we did not put a determined Israeli initiative on the table, [the] two-state [solution] fills the vacuum,” he wrote. “Like I said, this is a historic missed opportunity. Opportunities need to be taken advantage of in life (that’s how I worked in hi-tech and in general). But we are optimistic. We will continue to push, and in the end will execute.”
In a sign that this issue will become the newest point of contention between Bennett and Netanyahu, the Likud quickly responded to Bennett’s criticism, saying it was “entertaining” to read the education minister’s Twitter thread.
“Bennett is the last person to preach about standing up to pressure, since he has consistently given in to pressures from the New Israel Fund inside the Education Ministry and has kept [Palestinian poet] Mahmoud Darwish in the curriculum, given tenure to a woman from the radical Left as the person responsible for civics education, and turned a blind eye to Palestinian incitement inside Arab schools in east Jerusalem.”
Three days after Netanyahu presented the new guidelines to the security cabinet, the Prime Minister’s Office refrained from saying whether talks on the matter will continue with Trump’s envoy Jason Greenblatt.
Since the security cabinet meeting, Jerusalem has been careful to present the decision as an Israeli policy “that takes into the consideration the concerns of the president.” That is significantly different than having reached a formal agreement with the US on the matter.
Israel conducted discussions with Greenblatt on the issue for much of the last three weeks.
Trump said during a press conference with Netanyahu after their meeting in Washington in February that he would like to see Israel “hold back on settlements a little bit.”
According to a report in Haaretz, Netanyahu told the security cabinet on Thursday that Trump is determined to reach an Israeli-Palestinian deal, and is asking Israel – in addition to the settlement restrictions – to carry out other goodwill gestures toward the Palestinians.
The report said Netanyahu told the security cabinet it is important for Israel not to be seen as causing the US initiative to fail, and that while there will be no limitation on building in Jerusalem, Israel will need to act wisely.
Trump is scheduled to meet in Washington with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Monday and with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Wednesday. The diplomatic process with the Palestinians is expected to come up in both meetings. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is slated to meet with Trump later in the month.