As Trump envoy set to visit, Liberman pushes population transfer plan

Saying Arab politicians should not have Israeli citizenship, defense minister predicts any land-for-peace deal will fail if Arab towns not made Palestinian

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman attends a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in Jerusalem on March 6, 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman attends a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in Jerusalem on March 6, 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman cautioned the US against trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal on the basis of land for peace without also including a population transfer, as a senior Washington official tasked with kicking off peace efforts made his way to the region for the first time.

Jason Greenblatt, US President Donald Trump’s special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, is slated to land in Israel later Monday, and is expected to meet with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders as part of an opening gambit to try and broker fresh peace talks after years of stagnation between the sides.

In a statement posted to his Facebook page, Liberman said Greenblatt should “learn lessons from the past,” pitching the US official on his long-held belief that certain Israeli Arab towns should be made part of a Palestinian state, with many of the residents of those towns taking on Palestinian citizenship instead of Israeli.

“The first takeaway is that any attempt to solve the Palestinian issue on the basis of land for peace will be dead on arrival. The only way to reach a sustainable solution is land swaps and population transfers as part of a general regional agreement,” he wrote. “It can’t be that there will be a Palestinian state without any Jews — 100 percent Palestinian — and alongside that Israel will be a binational state with 22% Palestinians.”

Liberman’s controversial plan calls for towns in the “triangle” region southeast of Haifa, including heavily populated Arab cities, to become part of a Palestinian state in any peace agreement in exchange for Jewish settlement areas of the West Bank coming under Israeli sovereignty.

“There is no reason that Sheikh Raed Salah, Ayman Odeh, Basel Ghattas or Haneen Zoabi should continue to be citizens of Israel,” Liberman added, referring to the leader of the banned northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel and members of the Joint (Arab) List Knesset faction, respectively.

Responding to the statement, Ghattas said the fact that Liberman was born in the Soviet Union and moved to Israel made him a “passing visitor” while “Palestinians living in Israel own the place.”

“There’s no doubt that Liberman, a migrant from Moldova, doesn’t understand what it means to be born in your land, and in any agreement in the future, there is no room for settlers stealing the land of the Palestinian state, and no room for despicable racist migrants like Yvette,” Ghattas wrote, using a common nickname for Liberman.

Greenblatt’s visit will be the first major attempt by the new US administration to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after two months which have seen officials dither on support for the two-state solution, the location of the US Embassy and opposition to building in settlements.

On Friday, Trump held his first phone conversation with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, inviting him to visit the White House.

According to reports, Trump and his team want to broker a regional peace initiative that will include Israel, the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia and others.

On Sunday, Abbas said that his phone conversation with Trump was “constructive” and that Trump “confirmed his full commitment to the peace process.”

He added: “We will continue to cooperate with [Trump], in order to arrive at a comprehensive and just peace that will bring security and stability to everyone.”

Other Palestinian sources said that Trump told Abbas he wanted to broker a deal, and that he referred to Abbas as a “partner.”

The goal of Greenblatt’s visit is reportedly to formulate the Trump administration’s position on settlements, including what the US will accept in terms of where and how much Israel can build, and to arrange Abbas’s visit to Washington.

The visit comes a month after Trump’s public request that Israel “hold back” on the settlement construction, whose literal meaning Jerusalem officials have been tirelessly dissecting.

Both Netanyahu and Liberman have recently tried to curb the discussion of settlements, with the understanding that the issue could cause tension with Washington.

According to a Channel 2 TV report Sunday, the prime minister will present Greenblatt with plans for a new West Bank settlement, one that he promised the residents of Amona ahead of their court-ordered evacuation in exchange for a peaceful evacuation of the hilltop community.

The Palestinians are expected to push the US administration to present its own peace plan, according to a report Monday in the Haaretz daily.

Tamar Pileggi contributed to this report.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story erroneously included that Abbas said Trump had expressed commitment to a two-state deal, based on a Palestinian transcript of the speech.

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