Liberman open to building freeze outside settlement blocs
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Liberman open to building freeze outside settlement blocs

If US recognizes construction in settlements with large Jewish populations, Israel won't build in isolated areas, defense minister says

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in Tel Aviv, November 3, 2016. (Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in Tel Aviv, November 3, 2016. (Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday called on the Israeli government to reach agreements with the incoming US administration to allow Jerusalem to continue building inside the settlement blocs — even if that meant giving up the right to expand outlying settlements.

Liberman urged Israeli officials to wait until President-elect Donald Trump appointed his senior staff before commenting publicly on their expectations regarding future US policies. Nevertheless, the defense minister said he was ready to freeze building outside the blocs in exchange for an American agreement to expand settlement building in Efrat, Ma’ale Adumim and other areas widely expected to remain under Israeli sovereignty in the event of a future peace deal.

“We currently have a right-wing coalition in Israel and a Republican president and a Republican Congress. And therefore we can expect to be able to reach understandings vis-a-vis the Middle East, the issue of settlements in Judea and Samaria and the Iranian issue,” Liberman said in his first briefing to Israeli reporters since his Yisrael Beytenu party joined the government in May.

Specifically, Liberman cited a 2004 letter sent by then-president George W. Bush to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, in which the United States acknowledged that the settlement blocs will remain under Israeli sovereignty in a future peace agreement.

Prime minister Ariel Sharon and President George W Bush at the White House in April 2004 (photo credit: White House / Wikipedia Commons)
Prime minister Ariel Sharon and president George W Bush at the White House in April 2004 (White House / Wikipedia Commons)

In the letter, Bush wrote that “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”

“If we get permission by the administration to act according to the Bush-Sharon formula, we have to grab it with both hands,” Liberman said, even if that meant accepting a freeze for building outside the blocs. “It is clear that we won’t build outside the blocs,” he said.

While Liberman said he cares deeply about Israel’s settlement enterprise — he himself lives in the West Bank town of Nokdim, just outside of the consensus Etzion Bloc — the defense minister nonetheless maintained he was willing to forgo building outside the blocs for the benefit of the 80 percent of settlers who live inside those areas.

“Politically it might not be smart to say it, but if we could focus on construction for the 80 percent of the settler population and not build in Nokdim — that would be a good thing…. Obviously I’d be happy if we could also build in Nokdim, but if the options are either to build nowhere or build only in the blocs, then the choice is clear.”

Following Liberman’s remarks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement on Wednesday night that he would “listen to the ministers and formulate the government’s stance vis-a-vis the new US administration.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely had quickly replied to Liberman’s comments, saying his remarks were solely his own and “do not reflect the stance of the government.”

“The new administration and the government of Israel will start the process of communication as is customary with Trump’s entering the White House, and every limitation on the Israeli right to build harms Israeli interests at this time,” she said.

Meanwhile, in a surprise endorsement, Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni maintained: “Liberman is right.”

“Israel must enshrine vis-a-vis the Americans the commitment that I worked to get from Bush — against the right of return [for Palestinians] and for preserving the blocs,” the former foreign minister wrote on Twitter.

Liberman said Israel has received messages from people close to Trump asking the Israelis to tone down their rhetoric on the dawn of a new era for Israel’s settlement movement.

“I hope we’ll be smart enough to stop with the enthusiasm and the jubilation,” the defense minister said, in an apparent reference to right-wing politicians who declared that the president-elect will give Israel a free hand in dealing with the Palestinians, including unfettered settlement expansion.

Such talk “undoubtedly hurts” Israel’s position, the defense minister said.

In this Dec. 5, 2012 file photo, a Jewish settler looks at the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim, from the E-1 area on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)
In this Dec. 5, 2012 file photo, a Jewish settler looks at the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim, from the E-1 area on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

Liberman was hesitant to further discuss his expectations of the incoming Trump administration, saying that much depends on who the president will appoint to key posts such as secretary of state, national security adviser, attorney general, and secretary of the treasury.

“Trump wasn’t elected because of his position on the Middle East or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but because of taxation, unhappiness about the healthcare reform and other domestic topics. Therefore my assessment is that he will focus on these issues,” he said.

President-elect Donald Trump's appointment for senior counselor and chief White House strategist Steve Bannon looks on during a national security meeting with advisers at Trump Tower, October 7, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment for senior counselor and chief White House strategist Steve Bannon looks on during a national security meeting with advisers at Trump Tower, October 7, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

The defense minister also refused to comment on Trump’s controversial appointment of Stephen Bannon to a senior White House position, saying merely that Bannon will mostly likely not deal with Middle East issues. Bannon has been accused of harboring racist sentiments and pandering to white supremacists, though he denies the allegations.

Liberman also said that it was too early determine whether Trump’s election victory will embolden anti-Semitism in the US. “We will only be able to make a first assessment in April or in May,” he said.

Meanwhile, there is little reason for worry about the outgoing US administration backing anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations Security Council, Liberman indicated. “When it comes to his legacy, Obama seems more interested in his domestic accomplishments, such as his healthcare reform, and less in Palestine,” Liberman said. “Obama currently has enough other issues on his agenda than to worry about than Palestine.” However, he added, “anything can happen.”

Before Inauguration Day on January 20, no Israeli-Palestinian peace summit will be convened, not in Moscow or Cairo or anywhere else, Liberman asserted. Asked by The Times of Israel about the French initiative to hold a peace conference in Paris next month, Liberman replied dismissively that “the French can do whatever they want. It’s grotesque.”

Liberman said the reported $10 billion arms deal between Russia and Iran is still very far from being concluded, but expressed his misgivings. “There’s no doubt that it doesn’t give us great pleasure, but they don’t ask us. When they go for such deals we try to explain [why we’re opposed to it], but at the end of the day every country acts according to its own interest. Russia acts according to its interests.”

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