Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told senior Trump administration officials that in any future peace agreement with the Palestinians, Israel will seek to allow isolated settlements that won't be annexed to its territory to remain in place as enclaves that would be under Israeli sovereignty.
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This marks a change and a hardening in Netanyahu's position compared to the position that was presented during his negotiations with the Obama administration over its 2014 "framework document" for Israeli-Palestinian peace. As Haaretz reported on Saturday, at the time Netanyahu offered that settlers who wished to stay in their homes would do so "under Palestinian jurisdiction."
In recent weeks, while preparing for the Trump administration to present a new peace initiative, Netanyahu has been hardening his positions on a number of core issues. Last Tuesday, while giving a speech before the Knesset at an event marking 50 years to the Six-Day War, Netanyahu said that settlements will not be evacuated in any future agreement with the Palestinians.
"Everyone will have a right to live in their home, and no one will be uprooted," the prime minister declared. Netanyahu wants to avoid the evacuation of tens of thousands of settlers from the isolated settlements mainly because of the political price he and his Likud Party, which relies on support from the settlers, will pay for it.
Netanyahu raised the issue of the isolated settlements' fate in conversations with a number of officials in the Trump administration in recent months. The last one to hear from him on this issue was U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who visited Israel last week. Netanyahu told Haley that he wants to reach an agreement without evacuating any settlers, and that he seeks to leave the isolated settlements as Israeli enclaves within the Palestinian state's territory.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who attended the meeting with Haley, told Haaretz that Netanyahu spoke about adopting a model like the one that exists along the border area of Netherlands and Belgium, in which each country has small enclaves in the other country's territory.
This isn't the first time Netanyahu has brought up this idea – in 2014 he asked his advisers to examine it, but eventually reached the conclusion that isn't a realistic solution for Israel and the Palestinians. During his negotiations with the United States over the 2014 framework document, Netanyahu offered much more flexible language, which made it clear that settlers who will choose to remain in their homes will live under "Palestinian jurisdiction."
The Palestinians opposed the idea of leaving Israeli enclaves in their territory during the 2014 talks. The Palestinian condition for leaving settlements in place was that settlers who will remain behind will become Palestinians citizens, and the settlements will become "non-exclusive" communities in which any person can buy a home regardless of their religion or ethnicity.
Last week, however, the Palestinian side also hardened its position in comparison to 2014, and a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stated that the Palestinian state will be free of "any settlers or settlements."
As Haaretz reported on Saturday, in the course of negotiations with the Palestinians over the framework document at the beginning of 2014, 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, 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.
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 senior Obama administration official said that 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.
In the end, however, Netanyahu backtracked and asked to remove the clause from the framework document's draft due to political pressure from Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett as well as from several senior members of the prime minister’s Likud Party.
A senior Israeli official involved in the talks at the time said that Netanyahu realized that including the clause in the framework document wouldn’t solve the political issue with the settlers as he had thought, but would have created a far worse one. The official noted that although Netanyahu asked to remove the clause from the document, he didn’t really withdraw from the idea of leaving settlers in the Palestinian state, and believed that it would be possible to raise the issue later in negotiations.