Right Wing Pushes Netanyahu to Drop Two-state Goal in Trump Meeting

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the weekly cabinet meeting, January 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the weekly cabinet meeting, January 2017.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The security cabinet is expected to meet on Sunday to discuss policies Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will present at his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at their first meeting next Wednesday.

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The cabinet meeting will take place less than a day before Netanyahu departs for Washington. Education Minister and Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett is urging Netanyahu to present a policy that does not include the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Bennett, along with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and other security cabinet members, asked Netanyahu right after Trump’s November 8 victory to convene the cabinet and formulate an updated policy on the Palestinian issue for presentation to Trump. Bennett and Shaked argued that Trump’s victory had opened a window of opportunity for removing the two-state solution from the international community’s agenda, or at least for removing it from the policies of the American administration.

Over the last few weeks, and in recent days particularly, Bennett has been pressuring Netanyahu through different channels to disengage from his Bar-Ilan University speech in June 2009, in which he first expressed his willingness to allow a demilitarized Palestine state to be established, conditional on its recognizing Israel as the state of the Jewish people. Officials in Habayit Hayehudi say Bennett will insist that the policy presented to Trump include two main principles. One is an objection to any limitations on construction in West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem, and the other is an objection to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

It is unclear what Netanyahu’s approach is to the policies he will present to Trump on the Palestinian issue. A few days after Trump’s election, Netanyahu told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that he wants to work with Trump to promote a two-state solution. Since then Netanyahu changed direction and in recent weeks has not expressed support for such a solution, not publicly and not in private diplomatic conversations.

At a meeting of Likud ministers three weeks ago, Netanyahu said he was willing to grant the Palestinians a truncated state. He noted then and in several other public statements since then that he would demand that the IDF have complete operational freedom in the West Bank, so that if a Palestinian state were established it would not have full sovereign authority. Netanyahu underscored that the Palestinians do not agree to this.

In his meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May last Monday, Netanyahu refused to give his commitment to a two-state solution and only repeated his commitment to seeking peace. In a briefing to correspondents after that meeting, Netanyahu was asked repeatedly if he still supports the establishment of a Palestinian state, but he was evasive, giving general, non-binding answers. “I told Theresa May my position on what was realistic and what was unrealistic at this point,” he said. “One can constantly think of an imaginary reality,” he added.

Thursday night, in advance of the security cabinet meeting and less than a week before Netanyahu arrives for his first meeting with Trump, the premier’s patron and the owner of the daily Israel Hayom, American Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson was expected to attend a dinner at the White House, the Washington Post reported. Adelson contributed $20 million to Trump’s election campaign. An associate of Adelson told the Axios website that the casino magnate would discuss Trump’s promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, as well as stressing that the two-state solution is not feasible and should be abandoned.

During his campaign Trump promised that if he were elected he would transfer the embassy to Jerusalem. He expressed great support for construction in the settlements and made no mention of a Palestinian state. The positions expressed by Trump and his advisers during the campaign caused optimism among many on Israel’s right wing and among the pro-settler faction in the Knesset and government.

However, since his victory, and even more so since he assumed office, Trump has been following a more cautious policy with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The new president has distanced himself from several declarations he made during the election campaign, such as the promise to transfer the embassy. After decisions by Netanyahu on a flurry of new construction projects in the settlements, the White House leaked to the Jerusalem Post that this had not been coordinated with Trump and that he was opposed to these moves.

A short time later the White House came out with a softer version of the statement that construction in the settlements would hamper attempts to promote peace. This announcement surprised Netanyahu and greatly worried him. In a meeting with the heads of his coalition partners last Sunday, he presented the White House’s attitude to the settlements as a reason to postpone voting on the Palestinian land expropriation bill until after his meeting with the American president.

In the first three weeks of the new administration’s tenure, there were no contacts with Palestinian Authority officials. However, on Thursday Majid Faraj, the PA’s intelligence chief, came to the White House and met some of Trump’s advisers. He presented them with the Palestinian perspective several days before Trump’s meeting with Netanyahu. Much of Trump’s increasing moderation stemmed from messages he received from several Arab leaders, mainly from Jordan’s King Abdullah, who arrived in Washington uninvited but managed to arrange a meeting with the president. Netanyahu, who had hoped to meet a president starting off with a clean slate, will now meet an American president who is closer to traditional U.S. administration positions, held since 1967.

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