WASHINGTON — US State Department and White House officials avoided responding Monday to reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will insist that settlers have the choice of remaining in a future Palestinian state. J Street, however, joined in the fray, accusing Netanyahu of risking the derailment of the entire peace process by undermining his own credibility.
In accordance with the policy guidelines frequently invoked during the nine-month-long negotiations, Washington officials refused to directly comment on the proposal or even to confirm whether or not, as suggested by one Palestinian official, the prime minister had discussed such a plan with US Secretary of State John Kerry during one of their meetings.
When asked point-blank about recent statements by Netanyahu, including the assertion in Davos last week that he “does not intend to remove a single settlement” or “to displace a single Israeli,” State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki responded vaguely that “we’ve seen those statements, and obviously, a discussion over borders and all of those issues surrounding that is part of what is being discussed.”
On Sunday, a well-placed official in the Prime Minister’s Office unleashed a firestorm when he clarified to the Times of Israel that 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. The official said that 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 stance prompted of firestorm of criticism from the Palestinians and pro-settlement Israeli politicians led by Economics Minister and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett.
The US negotiating team has remained closed-lipped regarding almost all details of the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians since they resumed in July, as well as on specific details of the framework paper set to be presented by Kerry to the two parties as an intermediate step en route to a final agreement.
Psaki said that Kerry was “dismayed when there are public leaks of private discussions,” speaking directly to details of the framework document leaked by PLO Executive Committee member Yasser Abed Rabbo.
Abed Rabbo divulged a number of details about US proposals currently on the table in an interview with the London-based al-Hayat daily.
“You would all know if there was an agreement on a framework for negotiations. There is not, otherwise you would know,” Psaki added. “So reports out there about what it may entail or what it may include are inaccurate.”
Psaki said that details leaked to the press about various terms of a framework agreement – including Israel ceding control over parts of the Jordan Valley and wider terms for the return of Palestinians to Israel are not American proposals, but “ideas that both parties have been talking about.”
“Obviously, whenever an individual talks from one side or the other, they’re going to portray what they would like to see, not what is in a final agreement, because there isn’t an agreement on a framework for negotiations at this point,” Psaki continued.
Psaki warned that “there are some on both sides who may” try to conduct an outside track of negotiations through leaks and statements to the press.
While the State Department refused to take a side in the settlers-in-Palestine furor, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami suggested that Netanyahu’s proposal risked derailing the ongoing negotiations.
“We fear that the prime minister’s remarks seriously undermine his own credibility in the talks,” Ben Ami responded in a statement Monday. Ben-Ami called upon the government to “act swiftly to clarify that it is not engaged in these negotiations simply to expose deficiencies on the other side, but is seriously prepared to make the sacrifices and compromises – including settlement evacuation – that will be necessary to secure Israel’s future.”
Ben-Ami accused members of the PMO of “making matters worse” when they accused Netanyahu’s critics of interfering with the prime minister’s effort “to reveal the true face of the Palestinian Authority” as an unwilling peace partner.
“J Street fears that it is such statements and positions that risk revealing the Israeli leader as a supporter of the two-state solution in name only – willing to accept the idea of two states in principle but not the tough choices needed to make it a reality,” Ben-Ami wrote in his statement. “Those tough choices include relocating settlers living outside the permanent borders of Israel back home to the state of Israel.”
Ben-Ami said that Netanyahu’s comments at Davos last week represent a position that “undermines any chance of achieving an agreement establishing a border between Israel and a future Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 line with some small land swaps so that major settlement blocs in the West Bank and East Jerusalem could become part of Israel.”
“Insisting that settlements be allowed to remain in the heart of the future Palestinian state risks condemning the negotiations to failure,” Ben-Ami warned.