Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not intend to uproot Jewish settlements anywhere in the West Bank, and will not force any settlers to leave, even under a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians, a well-placed official in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel on Sunday. Rather, the prime minister will insist that settlers be given the free choice of remaining in place and living under Palestinian rule, or relocating to areas under Israeli sovereign rule, the official said.
That requirement seems certain to constitute a significant obstacle in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has categorically rejected the idea of any Israeli — soldier or civilian — remaining in a Palestinian state.
The official was explaining and elaborating on comments made Friday by Netanyahu during a press conference in Davos, Switzerland. “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.
The prime minister was answering a question relating to the Jordan Valley, and it was not entirely clear from his remarks whether he was relating solely to the Jordan Valley or the entire West Bank, and whether he was speaking about his stance in the short-term or his permanent position. Sunday’s comments to The Times of Israel by the official in his office resolved those questions: The prime minister was referring to the entire West Bank, the official made clear, and his refusal to require any settlers to leave applies in the long-term, even after the establishment of a Palestinian state.
While the official said Sunday that Netanyahu’s stance on the issue was “longstanding,” Friday’s press conference marked the first time since peace talks began in August that the prime minister had explicitly articulated this position in public.
“His consistent position has been that those settlements that will be on the Palestinian side of the border should not be uprooted,” the official told The Times of Israel. “Just as Israel has an Arab minority, the prime minister doesn’t see why Palestine can’t have a Jewish minority. The Jews living on their side should have a choice whether they want to stay or not.”
Netanyahu first hinted at this position in his May 2011 speech to the US Congress in Washington, the official noted. “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.” During that speech, he did not make explicit that settlers located east of the border must be given the option to stay, but he has said so in several meetings in recent weeks, the official said.
While in Davos, Netanyahu meet with US Secretary of State John Kerry three times to discuss the current peace talks. Kerry said he would soon present a position paper that would “achieve a framework for the negotiations that will define the endgame and all the core issues, and provide guidelines for the negotiators in their efforts to achieve a final-status peace agreement.”
The settlements are one of the core issues that will be addressed by the framework agreement, the Israeli official said. He declined however, to specify what the paper would say about the future of Israeli settlers in parts of the West Bank designated for the future Palestinian state. It is highly unlikely that Washington would adopt Netanyahu’s demand to allow all settlers, notably including those situated outside the main settlement blocs, to remain in their homes. Kerry said in Davos that all IDF soldiers would ultimately have to leave a Palestinian state.
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, just before the current 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.