Bennett Threatens: Limiting Israel's Military Activity in West Bank Cities Will Undermine Coalition's Stability

Briefing ministers, IDF general says talks to reduce military operations in Palestinian cities had already prompted the PA to intensify counterterror activity; Netanyahu: Israel's freedom of action will be preserved.

Minister Naftali Bennett in Knesset.
Emil Salman

If the government decides to reduce Israel Defense Forces operations in Palestinian cities of the West Bank, this is liable to undermine the coalition’s stability, Education Minister Naftali Bennett warned on Thursday.

Bennett's remarks were made during a tour of the IDF’s Central Command on Wednesday, in which the diplomatic-security cabinet received a briefing on the army’s negotiations with Palestinian security officials over this plan. The talks are aimed at reducing IDF activity in Area A, the part of the West Bank that is supposed to be under full Palestinian control according to the Oslo Accords.

A senior Israeli official with knowledge of the briefing said that after the ministers were told that the negotiations were security-related and not of diplomatic nature, Bennett said that he would not opposed the deal. However, speaking to Haaretz, the Education Minister denied this.

“Anyone who wants to entrust Israelis’ security to Abu Mazen’s soldiers hasn’t learned anything,” Bennett told Haaretz, referring to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas by his nickname. “The IDF’s control over Area A is the guarantee of Israel’s security. I oppose outsourcing our security, and such a step would reap a heavy political price."

The Prime Minister’s Bureau responded that “There is not and will not be any change in the IDF’s freedom of action throughout the territory, based on its operational needs. Bennett’s threats are uninteresting."

A senior official involved in the talks, who asked to remain anonymous, said that during Wednesday’s tour, both Bennett and Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin demanded information about the negotiations, which have been described in a series of recent reports in Haaretz. In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon asked Central Command chief Maj. Gen. Roni Numa and Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai  to brief the ministers on the talks, which have been going on for the past two months.

According to the senior official, Numa said the negotiations were strictly security-related, not diplomatic. He also said they had already prompted the PA to intensify its counterterror activity in Area A. Nevertheless, Numa added, Palestinian security officials had stressed that the constant IDF incursions into Palestinian cities were undermining their position among the Palestinian public and making it harder for them to operate, and therefore, they wanted these incursions to stop.

The official also quoted Numa as saying that until a few months ago, Israel was handling 85 percent of counterterror activity in the West Bank and the PA only 15 percent. But today, he said, the Palestinians are handling about 35 percent, and Israel’s share is down to 60 percent.

When the Palestinians do more, Israel can do less, and that means fewer soldiers risking their lives for the same security outcome, Numa argued.

Netanyahu told Bennett and Elkin that the talks weren’t aimed at reaching a formal agreement with the PA, the senior official continued. The prime minister also said that Israel wouldn’t agree to restore the situation that prevailed before the second intifada erupted in September 2000 - one in which the IDF didn’t enter Area A at all. Finally, Netanyahu said, any deal would involve a test period lasting several days to see whether the Palestinians were really doing more against terror.

“The IDF’s freedom of action in Area A is sacred and we’ll always preserve it,” the official quoted Netanyahu as saying.

The official claimed Bennett responded that if so, he wouldn’t oppose a deal. But Bennett denied this to Haaretz.

“It’s a lie,” he said. “Once again, they’re leaking lies from the security cabinet and endangering Israel’s security."

Three weeks ago, Haaretz revealed that Israel and the PA were holding secret negotiations on gradually returning security control of West Bank cities to the PA security services. Israel offered to stop all incursions into Area A except in urgent cases, known in Israeli parlance as ticking bombs.

Israel also proposed starting with Ramallah and Jericho, and then expanding to other cities if the handover of control went smoothly. But Palestinian officials rejected this idea, insisting that the IDF stop its incursions into all cities in Area A. They said accepting the Israeli proposal would essentially grant a Palestinian seal of approval to IDF activity in other West Bank cities and legitimize a unilateral Israeli violation of the Oslo Accords.

The talks are being led by Numa and Mordechai on the Israeli side and by Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh, head of the General Intelligence Service Majid Faraj and head of the Preventive Security service Ziad Hab al-Rieh on the Palestinian side.

Though Netanyahu and Ya’alon approved the talks, the security cabinet had not previously been briefed on them. After Haaretz’s first report appeared, Bennett and Elkin were furious, and Netanyahu placated them by saying the ministers weren’t briefed because the Palestinians had rejected Israel’s offer and the talks had therefore gone nowhere.

But as Haaretz reported on Wednesday, both senior Israelis officials and Western diplomats said that progress actually had been made over the course of three meetings in recent weeks, albeit not yet enough for an agreement.

In an interview with journalist Ilana Dayan that aired on Channel 2 television last Thursday, Abbas warned that without a significant reduction in IDF incursions into Palestinian cities, the PA was liable to collapse. He said he wants to preserve the security coordination with Israel, but that Netanyahu must order the IDF to end operations in these cities.