Economy Minister Naftali Bennett issued an attack of unprecedented antagonism against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, after an official in the Prime Minister’s Office told foreign journalists that the premier believes settlers who want to remain in their homes under Palestinian sovereignty should be allowed to do so.
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The senior official said Netanyahu sees no reason why final status arrangements could not allow for a Jewish minority in the Palestinian state, just as there is an Arab minority in the Jewish state.
Bennett's attack appeared to come in response to remarks Netanyahu made Friday at the World Economic Forum at Davos stressing that he had no intention of evacuating a single settlement or of uprooting a single Israeli living in the settlements. In a speech he made to the U.S. Congress in May 2011, Netanyahu also suggested that settlements could remain outside Israel’s borders under a peace treaty with the Palestinians.
Bennett, the Habayit Hayehudi chairman, said such a notion “reflects ethical befuddlement.”
“Two thousand years of longing for the Land of Israel did not pass so we could live under the rule of [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas], and whoever even considers having Jews live in the Land of Israel under Palestinian sovereignty undermines our presence in Tel Aviv.”
The Palestinians consider settlements built beyond the 1967 borders to be illegal land grabs and rejected the idea of incorporating them in a future state.
"Anyone who says he wants to keep settlers in the Palestinian state is actually saying that he doesn't want a Palestinian state," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. "No settler will be allowed to stay in the Palestinian state, not even a single one, because settlements are illegal and the presence of the settlers on the occupied lands is illegal."
The Prime Minister's Office gave no direct response to the attacks by Bennett against Netanyahu. Instead, Netanyahu's spokesmen criticized the Palestinian Authority for rejecting the scenario of Jewish settlements remaining in the territory of a future Palestinian state.
"There is nothing that reveals more the lack of willingness of the PA to reach a solution with Israel than the extreme and reckless reaction to an unofficial statement," Netanyahu's office said.
Three Likud deputy ministers – Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely and Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon also issued angry protests at Netanyahu following the press briefing.
“Only someone who suffers from the illusion that ‘the wolf will lie down with the lamb,’ and that one can place the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens at the mercy of those who conducted the [October 2000] lynch in Ramallah, can truly believe that we can assure the security of the Dan region and the central region if a Palestinian state is established,” wrote Elkin.
Hotovely said that any diplomatic plan that abandons Jewish communities to Palestinian sovereignty “will not get any political backing from the Likud.”
“We will not leave settlers across enemy lines,” added Danon. “I would not wish upon my enemies to live under Palestinian sovereignty.”
Bennett’s associates in Habayit Hayehudi were also incensed about the remarks made during the journalists’ briefing. A senior Habayit Hayehudi official said that during internal discussions about the diplomatic process in recent months, Netanyahu had stressed that he would not evacuate settlements, but he never said he was interested in leaving settlements under Palestinian sovereignty.
“It’s a crazy idea,” the official said. “This is a time when the prime minister must stand firm and not give in. Whoever thinks that Eli, Itamar or Ofra can be under Palestinian rule will end up with Jerusalem under Palestinian rule. … We urge him to refute the briefings coming out of his bureau.”
No one in Habayit Hayehudi would say that Bennett’s remarks indicated a threat to bolt the coalition. However, Bennett said a few weeks ago that if Netanyahu accepts an American framework agreement that states that the borders of the Palestinian state will be based on the 1967 lines with land swaps, Habayit Hayehudi would leave the government.
On Sunday afternoon Netanyahu told a meeting of Likud ministers that Israel and the Palestinians would be able to express significant objections to the framework agreement being formulated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, which is meant to be a basis for advancing the negotiations with the Palestinians.
During the meeting, Netanyahu tried to downplay the importance of the document, saying that it would not be an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but a “route to progress” that will express the U.S. administration’s positions on the various core issues.
On Monday a group called Breaking the Impasse, made up of Israeli and Palestinian businessmen who support a diplomatic solution, will launch a public campaign aimed at encouraging Netanyahu to move the peace process forward.
Members of the group have met with Netanyahu and other government ministers over the past few months. In recent days group members also met with Kerry on the sidelines of the Davos conference.
The group’s campaign will include newspaper ads and billboards with the slogan “A strong state signs an agreement. Bibi [Netanyahu], only you can do it!” Ads appearing on Monday in the daily newspapers will feature a picture of Netanyahu and text saying that a group of some of the country’s leading businessmen are asking the public and the Israeli leadership to take advantage of the opportunity created by Kerry’s initiative, and to come to an agreement that will put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Without an agreement we will not be able to deal with the high cost of living,” the ad reads. “Without an agreement we cannot assure that the State of Israel will remain a Jewish, democratic, and egalitarian state. Without an agreement we will have difficulty ensuring our children’s future. A diplomatic arrangement is in Israel’s national interest and that’s why, as a strong and enterprising nation, we should strive for this. It’s not a dead end, the solution is in all our hands, but above all, Prime Minister Netanyahu, it’s in your hands. We and the international community are at your side, because only you can do it.”