Coalition lawmakers on Wednesday fumed at Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman for proposing the government reach an arrangement with the incoming US administration that would approve Israeli construction in the main settlement blocs in the West Bank in exchange for a freeze on building in the outlying settlements.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a terse response to Liberman’s proposal, saying he would “listen to the ministers and form a governmental position together with the new US administration.”
Deputy Foreign Minister and Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely issued a swift condemnation to Liberman’s proposal, calling his remarks “harmful,” and said they “do not reflect the stance” of the Israeli government.
“The new administration and the government of Israel will start the process of communication as is customary with Trump’s entry into the White House, and every limitation on the Israeli right to build harms Israeli interests at this time,” the deputy minister said.
During a briefing to reporters on Wednesday, Liberman said he was ready to freeze building outside the blocs in exchange for an agreement with the incoming Trump administration to expand settlement building in Efrat, Ma’ale Adumim and other areas widely expected to remain under Israeli sovereignty in the event of a future peace deal.
Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli slammed Liberman’s proposal as “outrageous,” and called on the defense minister to retract his remarks and stay loyal to his right-wing constituents.
Fellow party member Betzalel Smotrich criticized Liberman for “talking nonsense” and labeled his proposal a “leftist plan.”
“This is a strategic issue,” Smotrich said. “The issue of settlements are the responsibility of the entire government, not the defense minister alone. There is no reason for a right-wing government to adopt a leftist plan.”
The head of the Samaria Regional Council, Yossi Dagan, also weighed in on the settlement freeze proposal, saying: “The unfortunate statement that comes before the American president takes office sends a bad message to the new and supportive administration.”
Liberman in his remarks Wednesday cited a 2004 letter sent by then-president George W. Bush to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, in which the United States acknowledged that the settlement blocs will remain under Israeli sovereignty in a future peace agreement.
“If we get permission by the administration to act according to the Bush-Sharon formula, we have to grab it with both hands,” Liberman said, even if that meant accepting a freeze for building outside the blocs. “It is clear that we won’t build outside the blocs,” he said.
While Liberman said he cares deeply about Israel’s settlement enterprise — he himself lives in the West Bank town of Nokdim, just outside of the consensus Etzion Bloc — the defense minister nonetheless maintained he was willing to forgo building outside the blocs for the benefit of the 80 percent of settlers who live inside those areas.
“Politically it might not be smart to say it, but if we could focus on construction for the 80 percent of the settler population and not build in Nokdim — that would be a good thing…. Obviously I’d be happy if we could also build in Nokdim, but if the options are either to build nowhere or build only in the blocs, then the choice is clear.”
Liberman’s proposal earned the hawkish defense minister a surprise endorsement from opposition MK Tzipi Livni of the Zionist Union who maintained: “Liberman is right.”
“Israel must enshrine vis-à-vis the Americans the commitment that I worked to get from Bush — against the right of return [for Palestinians] and for preserving the blocs,” the former foreign minister wrote on Twitter.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.