NEW YORK – Israel should take additional steps to encourage peace talks, longtime Likud minister Dan Meridor, who most recently served as Israel’s minister for intelligence and atomic energy, told The Times of Israel this week.

“We have to invite the Palestinians to talks, to offer talks in good spirit. And we have to take a few actions of our own. We have to stop — and to announce it, not just do it — building any new settlements outside the [security] fence or outside the blocs,” he said, but cautioned against removing settlements without a peace deal.

“I wouldn’t remove the existing settlements of course, and they have to be protected, so I wouldn’t withdraw the army under any circumstances. Beyond that, I’d do everything possible on my part to make the border something like [the ’67 lines plus land swaps],” he said.

Meridor also urged the government to “transfer more sovereign powers to the Palestinians, on economic issues and police issues, by expanding their areas of control. We can construct a new situation slowly,” he said.

“We have to make every effort,” he added.

Meridor is a highly-respected political voice nationally, though he was sidelined in the most recent Likud party primaries and did not return to the new Knesset. He has served as a cabinet minister for over a decade across four governments and was a member of the Winograd Commission that investigated the mistakes made during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. He spoke to The Times of Israel on the sidelines of an Israel Policy Forum event in Manhattan.

Meridor praised a statement by Arab League representatives in Washington last week that accepted “minor” land swaps to the pre-1967 borders as a basis for negotiations.

‘What is optimism? We have to act’

“Israel should have welcomed the Qatari foreign minister’s statement [detailing the representatives’ agreement] as a good statement. We should have said we don’t agree on refugees; they should not return to Israel. And we don’t agree — we have to discuss — the borders, because we want to change them.”

But, Meridor added, the new flexibility “is a very important statement. For many years, as Sadat used to say, [the Arab position was] ‘not a square inch.’ Now they talk about 1967 plus minor changes. This fits with Obama’s speech [in Jerusalem in March], with Netanyahu’s speech in the Knesset where he said that we want the [major settlement] blocs and Jerusalem. He could have spoken of more.

“So, more or less, you see a line being drawn according to which the borders will be not far from the ‘67 lines, with some modification,” Meridor said.

But steps had to be taken to make sure that that “growing international consensus” about land swaps would actually be possible down the road, he added.

“Look, it’s possible to hold on to so much that you end up with nothing. There’s already international agreement on this. When they say ‘changes’ or ‘swaps’ on the ’67 [lines], that’s what they’re talking about. You can argue about the details, but in general, there’s a growing international consensus. We also don’t have any interest in making the entire land a single state. The result would be disastrous for Zionism,” he said.

The interview with Meridor was held amid reports Tuesday that Netanyahu had, de-facto, frozen new construction in the West Bank.

Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel of the pro-settler Jewish Home party was given the instruction to delay new West Bank construction projects, likely due to American pressure, in a move that would require special approval for any building project.

How do you respond to the widespread skepticism among Israelis about the Palestinians’ ability and desire to make peace.

“If that’s the situation, why should the blame [for failure] fall entirely on us? We need to offer negotiations immediately, to stop building beyond the boundaries of the blocs — not for them, but for us. We must not create a situation we don’t know how to get out of later. We have to offer talks, and if they don’t come, let them not come.”

That suggests you’d support a unilateral withdrawal if an agreement is not forthcoming. Can Israel pull out, say, 70,000 settlers from scattered settlements outside the blocs?

“I don’t know. We’re not there. Why shouldn’t the Palestinians accept that some [Jews] will live by them?”

Are you optimistic?

“What is optimism? We have to act. We can’t wait for things to happen of their own accord. We have an anomaly, and we have to change it. For the past 40 years in Hebron, the Jew can vote and the Arab can’t. How long can that last? It’s not possible. There has to be a major effort to end it, in a final status agreement, an interim agreement, without surrendering our security. That’s what has to be done.

“In any case, that’s what I would do. I said it out loud, too. Maybe that’s why they didn’t vote for me.”