The Israeli government will not force West Bank settlers to leave their homes, even under a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a TV interview.
The prime minister said it was clear that Israel would not be able to extend its sovereignty under a permanent accord to encompass all of the settlements, but he was adamant that “there will be no act of evacuation.” The comment marked the first time that he has indicated that he would not countenance a repeat of the 2005 forced evacuation of Gaza’s settlements, overseen by the late prime minister Ariel Sharon, which he opposed at the time.
Asked in the Channel 2 interview on Friday how he could hope to reach a deal with the Palestinians within such limitations, and whether he expected settlers to leave their homes voluntarily, Netanyahu said it was not yet clear where the borders of a two-state solution would run, and that he did not “want to go into the details” of how an accommodation regarding the settlers might be achieved.
“Of course some of the settlements won’t be part of the deal, everyone understands that,” Netanyahu said. “I will make sure that [number] is as limited as possible, if we get there.” He pledged that no Israeli will be “abandoned.”
Netanyahu’s comments marked the closest he has come to confirming The Times of Israel’s exclusive report from last month, which quoted a well-placed official in the Prime Minister’s Office as saying that Netanyahu would insist that settlers who find themselves on the far side of a two-state border be given the choice between remaining in place and living under Palestinian rule, or relocating to areas under Israeli sovereign rule.
Netanyahu stressed in the TV interview that he was genuine in seeking a permanent accord with the Palestinians. Israel needed to remain a Jewish and a democratic state, he said. But it also needed to ensure that Iranian-inspired extremists not capitalize on any accommodation. Israelis “don’t want an Iranian state” arising in the West Bank, as had happened in Gaza when Hamas Islamic extremists took over after Israel’s withdrawal.
The prime minister charged, however, that the Palestinians under PA President Mahmoud Abbas were “a very long way” from readiness for viable peace terms. They had to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, abandon the demand for a “right of return” for millions of refugee descendants to Israel, and agree to an “end of the conflict” accord, he said, and were giving no signs of being prepared to do so.
Asked about the stern interview given by Barack Obama to Bloomberg on the eve of his meeting with Netanyahu in Washington Monday — the US president had castigated the settlement enterprise in a wide-ranging critique — Netanyahu said vaguely that “lots of people say lots of things.” He said he’d “stood up to pressure” in the past, and added that he had done so again while in the US this week, but did not elaborate. More important than any critical interview, he said, was the “positive” meeting he had with Obama at the White House.
In another weekend interview, with Channel 10, Netanyahu said he “hadn’t offered” a settlement freeze in a bid to advance negotiations, but didn’t quite rule one out. He recalled that he froze settlement expansion in 2009-2010, and that the move did not yield a diplomatic breakthrough.
He said that the US “framework” document for continued peace talks, which is being drafted by Secretary of State John Kerry, would reflect “the American positions” and that Israel and the Palestinians might well object to some of the terms. “We don’t have to agree to everything they write.”
He also said he intended to ensure Jerusalem remained Israel’s united capital, under full Israeli rule.