Netanyahu forbids ministers from contacting Trump advisers

Liberman retracts comments about only building in settlement blocs • Bolton warns over Obama at UN.

Netanyahu and Trump (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Trump
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directed ministers and deputy ministers on Monday not to make direct contact with officials in US President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team, in an apparent effort to prevent a proliferation of messages from Jerusalem to the new administration.
New cabinet-secretary Tzachi Braverman wrote the ministers and deputy ministers that they should only make contact with the new administration through the Prime Minister’s Office or through the embassy in Washington.
The directive came a day after Education Minister Naftali Bennett attended a Zionist Organization of America dinner on Sunday night in New York that was also attended by David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt, two of Trump’s Jewish advisers on Israel.
The move followed comments Netanyahu made at last week’s weekly cabinet meeting, requesting that all ministers, deputy ministers and MKs “allow the incoming administration to formulate – together with us – its policy vis-à-vis Israel and the region, through accepted and quiet channels, and not via interviews and statements.”
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said last week that Jerusalem had received messages from Trump’s transition team to tone down comments and behave with “a bit more humility.” Immediately after the US elections on November 8, Bennett said “the era of a Palestinian state is over.”
Liberman himself walked back comments on Monday that he made at a press briefing last week, when he said that Israel should contain settlement building to the main settlement blocs. Liberman was harshly criticized by the Right for these remarks, and reportedly was chastised as well by sources close to Trump.
Liberman said at the Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting in the Knesset that “over the weekend I saw so many false accusations and disinformation” about his position regarding the settlements that he felt the need to clarify matters.
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“As a pragmatic man of the Right, and as a realistic resident of Judea and Samaria, I admit and confess that we did not build enough over the last eight years – we hardly built,” he said. He added this was not because of a lack of legislation or will, “but because of a failure in attempts to formulate a policy acceptable both to us and the United States.”
Therefore, he said, “my only request of my colleagues was to wait for the new administration, and not establish positions on the ground, and try – after January 20 – to reach a joint policy regarding construction in Judea and Samaria.”
Liberman said Netanyahu is the one who will have to try to reach understandings with the next US administration.
At the briefing last week, Liberman said Israel should aspire to getting the new administration to reaffirm the exchange of letters between former leaders George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon in 2004, during the run-up to the withdrawal from Gaza a year later. In line with those letters, he suggested, Jerusalem should agree to freeze construction in isolated settlements like his own community of Nokdim, outside the security fence, and instead only build inside the large settlement blocs.
“If we get permission from the new administration to build inside the settlement blocs, I think we need to grab it with both hands,” he said, even at the expense of freezing construction in the isolated settlements.
Netanyahu distanced himself from Liberman’s comments, which were even more fiercely criticized on the right. And on Friday, Makor Rishon reported that sources close to Trump were furious at the statements, saying they were tying the president-elect’s hands from the Left. How could anyone imagine that the next administration would take a more liberal approach to settlement construction than the one taken by the Israeli government, the sources reportedly said.
In a related development, former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, whose name has been mentioned as a possible secretary of state under Trump, expressed concern on Sunday that President Barack Obama might take action at the UN in the waning days of his presidency that would harm Israel’s interests.
Among the possible scenarios that have been mentioned are support for an anti-settlement resolution in the Security Council, supporting a resolution that would accept Palestinian statehood, or – as Bolton said – “try to set a boundary for Israel based on the 1967 cease-fire lines.”
“I’m particularly worried about what he might do with respect to Israel and the United Nations,” he said in a New York radio interview on Sunday. “I think that would be very inadvisable for the president to do that. We have to wait and see.”