Deepening a rift within the government over a decision to allow the Palestinian Authority to expand the city of Qalqilya in the West Bank, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Monday that Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman had failed to present the cabinet with the full details of the potentially explosive plan ahead of a ministerial vote on it last year.
A statement released by the prime minister’s office denied reports that Netanyahu had told the cabinet a day earlier that he couldn’t recall the plan at all. Rather, the statement asserted, “he only said that he didn’t remember he had been presented with the fact that it would include 14,000 new apartments.”
Notably, there was no denial of reports the prime minister was planning to revisit the decision to go ahead with the plan.
The statement asserted that the protocols of the meeting last year when the plan was voted on “prove that the prime minister is correct.” A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office declined to release the minutes of the meeting, but confirmed to The Times of Israel that Liberman had presented the plan. The statement seemed to suggest the defense minister was responsible for omitting the intention to construct thousands of new Palestinian homes in Qalqilya.
The plan, first reported by Channel 2 news on Wednesday, would see 14,000 new apartments built on 2,500 dunams (617 acres) in Israeli-controlled Area C surrounding the city, potentially more than doubling its population, from 50,000 to 110,000.
Responding to that report, and to fierce opposition voiced by settler leaders, the Prime Minister’s Office said last Wednesday that the proposal was “presented by the defense minister last year and approved by the cabinet.” Since that time, it also noted, “over 10,000 homes have been approved for planning and construction in the Jewish communities.”
Liberman’s spokesperson declined to comment Monday on the allegation that he had failed to present key details of the plan, and would not say whether the defense minister disputed Netanyahu’s account of the proceedings in the cabinet meeting.
Reports of Netanyahu’s dissatisfaction with the plan surfaced after several right-wing ministers denounced the scheme and claimed it had not been reviewed properly by the cabinet.
Following those reports, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads the settlement-supporting Jewish Home party, lauded the prime minister’s apparent about-face, tweeting that “in light of the Palestinian incitement [to commit terror attacks] we should not give them a prize of 14,000 homes along Route 6. I hope that this time everyone will join us in our position.”
Qalqilya is mostly surrounded by Israel’s security barrier and lies opposite the country’s central region only a few kilometers from Kfar Saba, north of Tel Aviv. The trans-Israel highway, Route 6, passes right next to the city.
Ministers Gilad Erdan and Yisrael Katz denied that the cabinet had ever voted on the plan.
“I don’t understand who gave the Civil Administration the authority to approve such a large-scale building plan,” Erdan told Army Radio Sunday.
“The Qalqilya plan was never presented. I never approved it or even voted for it,” Katz tweeted.
On Sunday night, Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council that oversees settlements in the northern West Bank, led a protest on the outskirts of Qalqilya, calling on the government to cancel the decision.
“We expect this government to continue to keep to its commitments and to strengthen the settlements and, as a result, all of Israel,” Dagan said, slamming what he called a “unacceptable” lull in settlement building.
Jacob Magid and Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.