In the course of negotiations with the Palestinians over the framework document at the beginning of 2014, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded that the Obama administration insert a provision stating that Israeli settlers and settlements in the West Bank would be allowed to remain in a future Palestinian state under Palestinian jurisdiction. This is according to a working draft of the document obtained by Haaretz and from conversations with senior Israeli and U.S. officials who were involved in the talks at the time.
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The Americans were willing at one point to insert the provision into the document, but ultimately it was removed at Netanyahu’s request due to political pressure from Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett, as well as from several senior members of the prime minister’s Likud party.
The evacuation of settlers and settlements in a future peace agreement with the Palestinians is a highly sensitive political issue for any Israeli government and even more so for Netanyahu, for whom the settlers are a major political support base.
Senior Israeli officials who were involved in the negotiations at the time noted that the issue of leaving some of the settlers or settlements in a future Palestinian state was the focus of internal discussions among the Israeli negotiating team.
Most of the Israeli negotiating team at the time, most notably then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, believed that leaving settlers in a future Palestinian state was a purely theoretical matter, both because it was doubtful there would be settlers who would want to remain in a Palestinian state, and the fact that leaving settlers in such a state was liable to create serious security problems.
However, in internal discussions at the time, Netanyahu supported the idea of leaving settlers in the Palestinian state in existing isolated settlements that would not be annexed to Israel.
Senior Israeli officials noted that Netanyahu had several reasons for his position at the time:
1. A matter of principle: If a Palestinian minority exists in Israel with equal rights, there is no reason why there shouldn’t be a Jewish minority with equal rights in the Palestinian state.
2. A substantive reason: Netanyahu believed the possibility of leaving the settlements in place in the future Palestinian state would solve some of the practical problems involved in the need to evacuate tens of thousands of settlers from their homes.
3. A political reason: Netanyahu believed that adding the principle of leaving settlers or settlements in a Palestinian state in the framework agreement, which was being formulated by then-Secretary of State John Kerry, would help the prime minister overcome a substantial amount of political opposition to cooperation with Kerry’s efforts and head off the collapse of Netanyahu’s governing coalition.
The senior Israeli officials noted that Netanyahu had asked the Americans to insert the provision into one of the principles provided in the framework agreement that Kerry was developing. In a draft of the document obtained by Haaretz from the middle of February 2014, there was a provision stating that Israelis choosing to remain in the State of Palestine would live under Palestinian jurisdiction, without discrimination and with full rights and protections.
The provision in the draft was marked with the letter “I,” indicating it was an Israeli demand. It was noted in the draft that Netanyahu preferred that the provision not state the settlers would remain in their homes in the State of Palestine, but rather only that they would remain “in place.”
A former U.S. official who was involved in the talks said the Americans had a hard time understanding Netanyahu’s insistence, since these settlements would be in the territory of the future Palestinian state no matter what phrasing would be used to describe it.
According to this U.S. official, Netanyahu said a provision stating that Israelis would remain in the State of Palestine would be politically unacceptable for Israeli voters on the right.
The prime minister’s position was the background for a notation in parenthesis stating: “[U.S.] negotiators need to check with PM [Netanyahu] on whether he wants to keep this section. They believe that if so he will push strongly for ‘in place.’ ‘In place’ is inconsistent with U.S. policy and therefore unacceptable to us as well as the Palestinians.”
The former U.S. official added that the American negotiators expressed readiness to include the issue of settlers remaining in the Palestinian state in the framework document, but made it clear they also intended to discuss it with the Palestinian side and to look for a formula that could be agreed upon before it was inserted into the final version.
The Israeli side at the time stressed that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had already agreed to a similar idea in the course of talks with former Israeli Minister Yossi Beilin in the mid-1990s. In his conversations with Beilin, Abbas said the Palestinians would agree to allow settlers to remain in a Palestinian state, but only on the condition that the settlements themselves became communities open to anyone capable of buying a home there, without any discrimination based on religion or nationality.
Although the provision regarding settlers in a Palestinian state appeared in a February 2014 draft of the framework document, it was absent from a subsequent March draft – the draft that was presented to Abbas at a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House on March 17, 2014. Instead, in the section dealing with mutual recognition between Israel and Palestine, there was a sentence noting that the two states would refrain from religious or national discrimination against their citizens.
Senior Israeli officials who were involved in the negotiations noted that Netanyahu, who at first asked that the provision giving the settlers the option of remaining in the Palestinian state be inserted, was the one who later asked that it be deleted. The background to Netanyahu’s shift in position, the officials said, was a public political confrontation at the end of January 2014 between the premier and Bennett.
The senior Israelis said that during that period, Netanyahu had wanted to gauge how the public and politicians would react to the idea of leaving settlers in the Palestinian state. On January 24 of that year, at a news conference at the Davos economic forum in Switzerland (shortly after meeting with Kerry), Netanyahu said he did not intend to evacuate any community or uproot any Israeli in a future peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Two days later, the Prime Minister’s Office leaked a story to foreign news agencies that Netanyahu believed settlers who wished to remain in their homes under Palestinian rule after the signing of any peace agreement should be allowed to do so.
A senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office told the news agencies at the time that Netanyahu believed there was no reason why there shouldn’t be a Jewish minority in the Palestinian state, just as there is an Arab minority in the Jewish state.
Netanyahu’s media trial balloon prompted a furious response on the Israeli right, however. Bennett attacked the idea, saying it “reflected ethical befuddlement.” Three deputy cabinet ministers at the time, Zeev Elkin, Tzipi Hotovely and Danny Danon, also condemned the idea, releasing statements harshly critical of Netanyahu.
Bennett’s attack on the prime minister created a serious coalition crisis, which at its nadir led the Prime Minister’s Office to issue an ultimatum demanding that Bennett apologize or resign. The threat worked and Bennett apologized.
But Bennett’s harsh criticism also had its effect. Senior Israeli officials said the conclusion Netanyahu drew from the incident was that the inclusion of the provision regarding settlers remaining would not solve Netanyahu’s political problem as he had believed, but would instead create a far worse political issue.
The senior Israeli officials noted that as a result of the confrontation with Bennett, in the course of February 2014, Netanyahu asked the Americans to remove the provision from the framework document. The officials added that although the prime minister asked for the deletion, he hadn’t really given up on the idea of leaving settlers in the Palestinian state, believing the issue could be raised later in the negotiations.
A senior Israeli official noted that when the matter of leaving settlers in a Palestinian state was raised with the Palestinians by Israel or the United States in the negotiations, the Palestinians didn’t reject the suggestion out of hand.
The Palestinian condition was that settlers who wished to remain in their homes would need to do so only if they became Palestinian citizens under Palestinian rule and Palestinian law, and not as closed Israeli enclaves inside the Palestinian state.
A source close to Netanyahu who was aware of the talks with Kerry at the beginning of 2014 said in response to these details that the prime minister’s position at the time was that with or without an agreement, people should not be uprooted from their homes.
“There were a lot of drafts at the time, and Netanyahu didn’t approve any of them,” the source said.