Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding that the U.S. administration accept construction in the large settlement blocs in return for a package of measures that Israel would implement in the West Bank. A senior official in Jerusalem said Netanyahu pressed the demand during his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington two weeks ago. The issue is also expected to be raised when the two meet in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
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“The Americans want Israel to implement a package of meaningful measures in the West Bank,” said the senior Israeli official, who wished to remain nameless. “The prime minister made it clear that we want American recognition of the settlement blocs and of the fact that we can build there.”
Netanyahu came to the November 11 meeting with Kerry with a package of steps Israel is prepared to take in the West Bank in order to stabilize the security situation. Most of the measures suggested included economic benefits for the Palestinians and advancing Palestinian infrastructure and construction projects.
Kerry and his people were somewhat disappointed by Netanyahu’s proposals. The secretary of state wants Israel to take steps that will demonstrate its commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state, and that will signal a change on the ground from a one-state reality to a two-state reality. An example of what the Americans are looking for would be increasing the powers accorded the Palestinian Authority, particularly in Area C. These areas, which constitute the main land reserves in the West Bank, are now under total Israeli control.
Senior Israeli officials said Netanyahu made it clear to Kerry that for Israel to take any more significant steps in the West Bank, he would want America to accept Israeli construction in the Israeli settlement blocs. Netanyahu told Kerry that such compensation will make it easier for him to get his security cabinet to agree to his proposed measures and to ease the resistance of some of his coalition partners.
Kerry and his people were not clear on what exactly Netanyahu was prepared to do on the West Bank. Over the past few days, ahead of Kerry's visit, U.S. envoy to the peace process Frank Lowenstein held talks with Netanyahu’s adviser Isaac Molho. During those talks, Molho did not offer specific examples of what Netanyahu was offering, but repeated the prime minister’s message that he would be able to do more if he knew the Americans would recognize the settlement blocs.
The Americans do not think the deal Netanyahu is trying to make indicates a change in policy, or that he would be prepared to officially freeze construction outside the settlement blocs – or even precisely define where the settlement blocs are, which he has refused to do since 2009. Kerry and his associates assume that Netanyahu is trying to reach understandings with the Obama administration regarding construction in the settlement blocs that would hold up under the new administration that takes office after the November 2016 presidential elections.
Apparently Netanyahu wants the Obama administration to recognize the understandings between former U.S. president George W. Bush and former prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2004 and 2005, which were arrived at against the backdrop of the plans for the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. In a letter Bush sent to Sharon in 2004, the president declared that the permanent borders between Israel and a Palestinian state would take into account the changes on the ground and existence of Israeli population centers – in other words, the settlement blocs.
In 2005, Sharon and Bush’s advisers came to secret understandings on the settlements that, according to Israel, included America’s agreement to additional construction in the settlement blocs to accommodate “natural population growth,” since these areas would presumably remain in Israel’s hands under any permanent agreement with the Palestinians.
After U.S. President Barack Obama took office in early 2009 and Netanyahu entered the Prime Minister’s Office a few months later, Obama demanded that Israel freeze construction throughout the West Bank, and in essence renounced the understandings ostensibly reached between Bush and Sharon. Obama’s aides, as well as former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who served under Bush, said there had never been any understandings between the Bush administration and Sharon in which the United States agreed to bestow legitimacy on settlement construction.
Kerry will meet Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning to discuss Israeli steps in the West Bank. Meanwhile, following the deadly terror attacks of the past few days, it isn’t clear whether the issue is still relevant. Kerry himself said Monday that during his visit to the region he would try to persuade both Israelis and Palestinians to take steps to stop the violence.
"And we have to somehow get everybody to step back and give us the space to try to go back to work. We’re perfectly prepared to work, and we have ideas for how things could proceed," he said. "But this street violence doesn’t provide any leader with a framework within which they can look their people in the eye and say there’s a reason to be sitting down and talking about this or that. People aren’t in the mood for concessions; they’re in the mood for being tough and stopping it."
On Monday, Kerry called the bereaved family of American teenager Ezra Schwartz, who was shot to death in a terror attack in Gush Etzion last week.
Schwartz, a yeshiva student at the time of his death, hailed from Boston, Kerry's home town. His parents have long lived in Boston, including when Kerry was senator of Massachusetts. Kerry told reporters in Abu Dhabi before calling the Schwartz family that there is no justification for Palestinian terror attacks against Israel.
"Look at Ezra Schwartz, who got shot, and another young life cut short," he said. "It happens almost every day over there and it’s terrible, and too many Israelis have been killed and stabbed, and too many Palestinians. And there’s no excuse for any of the violence. There’s just no rationale. Even if you’re unhappy and you’re disappointed in the lack of whatever the political horizon is, whatever, violence is not the solution."