Israel will not take any of the steps the Palestinian Authority wants to see in the West Bank until the level of violence has declined, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday.
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“The first condition for changing the security and economic conditions on the ground is restoring the quiet,” a senior Israeli official quoted Netanyahu as telling the visiting secretary of state during their meeting Tuesday morning.
During the meeting, the prime minister toughened up his stance and in effect backtracked on his willingness to take steps in the West Bank regardless of the security situation as he proposed during his visit to Washington about two weeks ago.
“Advancing civilian projects that the Palestinians are interested in will be possible only if the level of violence declines and if Israel’s security needs are also met. The main problem is the Palestinian religious incitement on social media, especially over the Temple Mount, and the Palestinian Authority participates in this incitement.”
The senior official said Netanyahu also told Kerry that there is no freeze on construction in the settlements, nor will there be any such freeze. Moreover, if the international community expects Israel to grant building permits to Palestinians in Area C, the part of the West Bank where Israel retains full civilian and security control under the Oslo Accords, then Israel expects the United States and the rest of the international community to accept Israeli construction in the major settlement blocs, Netanyahu added.
The senior official thus confirmed a report in Tuesday’s Haaretz which said that at Netanyahu’s last meeting with Kerry in Washington, the prime minister had conditioned any Israeli gestures toward the Palestinians on American acquiescence to Israeli construction in the settlement blocs. Apparently, what Netanyahu wants to obtain from the Obama Administration is recognition of the understandings reached between former president George W. Bush and former prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2004 and 2005, in the context of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
In a letter sent to Sharon in 2004, Bush wrote that the final border between Israel and a future Palestinian state would have to take account of the changes that had occurred on the ground and the existence of major Israeli population centers in the West Bank – namely, the settlement blocs. Then, in 2005, the two leaders’ aides reached secret understandings on the settlements. According to Israel, these included American acquiescence to construction in the settlement blocs to accommodate “natural growth,” since these areas would in any case remain Israeli under any final-status agreement.
U.S. President Barack Obama replaced Bush in January 2009, and Netanyahu was elected prime minister later that year. Shortly thereafter, Obama demanded that Israel freeze all construction in the settlements, thereby effectively disavowing the alleged Sharon-Bush understandings on the settlement blocs. Obama’s aides, backed by Bush’s former secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, insisted that no understandings of the sort claimed by Israel ever existed, and that Washington had never agreed to grant legitimacy to construction in the settlement blocs.
At the start of his meeting with Netanyahu Tuesday morning, Kerry said he had come “to talk about ways we can work together to push back against terrorism and violence and define a way forward to restore calm." He said Israel had both a right and a duty to defend itself against terror attacks on its citizens and voiced "complete condemnation for any act of terror that takes innocent lives and disrupts the day-to-day life of a nation."
"It is very clear to us that the terrorism, these acts of terrorism which have been taking place, deserve the condemnation that they are receiving," Kerry told reporters.
Netanyahu, on his part, said there can be no peace when Israel is facing an "onslaught of terror." He said the entire world is experiencing attacks by militant Islamism, and Israel is fighting those forces both directly and also indirectly, by targeting the sources of incitement. "We think the international community should support Israel in its efforts to fight terror – it is not only our battle; it is everyone's battle," he added.
Kerry arrived in Israel Tuesday morning for a short visit, his first since the breakdown of peace talks in 2014. Following his meeting with Netanyahu, he planned to meet with President Reuven Rivlin and opposition leader Isaac Herzog. Next, he was slated to go to Ramallah for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, before flying out of Israel later Tuesday night.
An Israeli source familiar with the details of the Netanyahu-Kerry meeting said that it ended without results and with no agreement on Israeli steps in the West Bank. According to the source, because of the recent terror attacks, Netanyahu refused to make moves that he had already proposed to Kerry two weeks ago and reiterated that if he took the steps Kerry demanded, such as authorizing major Palestinian projects or construction for Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank, it could lead to the breakup of the coalition. “Netanyahu took a harder line and Kerry left the meeting without any significant progress,” the source said.
Meanwhile, President Obama spoke by phone yesterday with Ezra Schwartz’s parents, Ari and Ruth. The president offered his profound condolences and condemned in the strongest terms the terrorist attack that took his life.