Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded in 2014 that US and Palestinian officials accept that settlers will be allowed to remain in the West Bank after a potential peace deal, according to a report Saturday.
A draft document meant to set the parameters for negotiations during the US-brokered talks in February 2014 contains an Israeli provision stating settlers “who chose to remain” in a future Palestinian state be allowed to do so “under Palestinian jurisdiction and with full rights and protections,” according to Israeli daily Haaretz, which says it obtained a copy of the draft.
The provision was marked with the letter “I,” indicating it was an Israeli demand, Haaretz reported. The draft is also said to have noted that Netanyahu preferred that the language not state the settlers would remain in their homes in the State of Palestine, but rather only that they would remain “in place.”
The report also quoted unnamed senior Israeli and US officials saying that Netanyahu pushed the Americans to include the text in the framework agreement but later asked it be removed following pressure from his hard-line coalition partners.
Netanyahu first hinted at a demand for settlers to remain in the West Bank under a peace deal in his May 2011 speech to the US Congress in Washington. “The status of the settlements will be decided only in negotiations,” Netanyahu said at the time. “In any peace agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders.”
The prime minister repeated that intention at a press conference in Davos in January 2014. “I have said in the past, and I repeat today: I do not intend to remove a single settlement, [and] I do not intend to displace a single Israeli,” Netanyahu said.
Elaborating on his statements to The Times of Israel, a well-placed official in the Prime Minister’s Office said at the time that Netanyahu did not intend to uproot Jewish settlements anywhere in the West Bank, and would not force any settlers to leave, even under a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians. Rather, the prime minister would insist that settlers be given the choice of remaining in place and living under Palestinian rule, or relocating to areas under Israeli sovereign rule, the official said.
According to Haaretz on Saturday, Netanyahu’s public comments on the issue triggered a visceral reaction from Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, as well a number of Likud MKs, which eventually caused the prime minister to ask the provision be pulled from the draft.
The Palestinians categorically reject the idea of any settlers remaining on the territory of their future state. “In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli — civilian or soldier — on our lands,” Abbas said in July 2013, just months before the 2014 peace talks were launched.
The idea of letting settlers choose whether they want to return to Israel proper or remain living in Palestine was first suggested in 2006 by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert. “Each and every one of the settlers who live in territories that stand to be evacuated will need to decide whether to live in a Jewish state, the State of Israel, or in a Palestinian state,” Olmert said, in response to a question about whether he intended to uproot tens of thousands of people from their homes in a future peace deal.
Netanyahu was and remains a fierce critic of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, under which prime minister Ariel Sharon forced the evacuation of all Gaza settlers and the demolition of their settlements.
On Tuesday, speaking at an event marking 50 years since the Six Day War and the beginning of the settlement enterprise, Netanyahu implored right-wing leaders to unify behind him in future peace efforts, promising that he would not bring another “tragedy” upon the settlements and that not a single settler would be uprooted as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.
In his remarks in the Knesset, Netanyahu also hinted that US President Donald Trump was sticking to traditional peace-making formulas, influenced by “50 years of propaganda.”
‘We are still facing this problem,” he said vaguely, “…even when a new administration enters.”
Netanyahu was in 2014 apparently prepared to accept a framework agreement drafted by US officials that set the pre-1967 lines as the basis for negotiations with the Palestinians.
According to a Haaretz report last week, two drafts of the framework agreement dropped the Palestinian demand for a “right of return” and set Jerusalem as the capital for both Israel and Palestine. It was not clear whether the provision about settlers remaining in a Palestinian State was included in either of those drafts or was part of a different draft altogether.
But the talks between Israel and the Palestinian fell apart in April 2014 after just over a year amid mutual recriminations, despite an intensive effort by then US secretary of state John Kerry to push the sides toward an agreement. Peace efforts have remained stagnant since then, though Trump is attempting to push the sides toward returning to the table.
Both Netanyahu and Abbas have said they are prepared for direct negotiations to restart, but Ramallah has demanded Israel take steps like a settlement freeze and Netanyahu has said Abbas must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, producing a stalemate.
It’s unclear if the Kerry-era draft document is being used in efforts by the Trump administration to restart talks.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.