Education Minister Naftali Bennett on Thursday urged Israel to make “sacrifices” to extend its sovereignty over the West Bank.
The Jewish Home party leader made the appeal for annexation a day after the Obama administration officials upbraided Israel for plans to build up to 300 housing units in the West Bank settlement of Shiloh to compensate homeowners in the nearby outpost of Amona ahead of its court-ordered evacuation and demolition in December.
On Thursday, the Walla news website reported the Tourism Ministry was advancing additional development plans in the West Bank settlement of Beit El.
The “dream is that Judea and Samaria will be part of sovereign Israel,” Bennett said at a memorial event for settler leader Hanan Porat, according to Hebrew media reports. “We must act today [to make this a reality], and we must sacrifice.”
In his remarks, the education minister used the Hebrew religious term “mesirut nefesh” for sacrifice. The term is also used in the context of Jewish martyrdom, prompting some translations to allege that the minister had called for Israelis to “give up their lives” to annex the West Bank.
“As Hanan said, we have no right to divide the country,” added Bennett, whose Orthodox-nationalist party firmly supports the settlement enterprise and who has previously called to annex Area C of the West Bank, which constitutes some 60 percent of the territory, where most settlers live and where Israel maintains full security and civilian control. “Not in words, not in deeds, not in quiet accords and quiet excuses. Not by politicians, not by lawyers. The path of concessions, of divisions, has lost.”
Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni on Thursday criticized the minister’s comments, saying “Bennett’s dream and the minority he represents is Israel’s nightmare.”
“We must all fight this nightmare,” she added. “All the masks have been finally removed.”
Meanwhile, the Walla news website reported Thursday that Israel’s Tourism Ministry was advancing a plan to build a promenade in the settlement of Beit El. The Civil Administration is unaware of this plan, the report said. Past construction in the area designated for the promenade was demolished by court order, according to the report.
Earlier on Thursday, an Israeli official deepened the dispute with the Obama administration over settlement-building by charging that “disproportionate criticism” from Washington over the latest construction plans is “an alibi” to cover plans by President Barack Obama to take anti-Israel actions in the final weeks of his presidency.
Speaking to Channel 2 news, the unnamed “senior political source” insisted that newly announced plans to build homes for Jews in the West Bank for the Amona evacuees do not constitute a new settlement, and do not breach any commitments made by Israel to the United States.
The TV report stressed that the comments did not constitute an official response from the government, and noted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not responded to the US criticism.
The White House on Wednesday accused Israel of a betrayal of trust over the new plans. “We did receive public assurances from the Israeli government that contradict this announcement,” said press secretary Josh Earnest. “I guess when we’re talking about how good friends treat one another, that’s a source of serious concern as well.”
In a similarly strongly worded statement, the State Department said Israel’s “recent decision to advance a plan that would create a significant new settlement deep in the West Bank.” Invoking the name of Israel’s former president who died last week, spokesman Mark Toner added: “[I]t is disheartening that while Israel and the world mourned the passing of President Shimon Peres, and leaders from the US and other nations prepared to honor one of the great champions of peace, plans were advanced that would seriously undermine the prospects for the two state solution that he so passionately supported.”
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked also said earlier Thursday a harsh US condemnation of Israeli building plans in the West Bank was “disproportionate,” and called for increased settlement construction.
Shaked, also from the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, said the US should focus its condemnation on Syria “rather than criticizing where Israel builds houses.”
“When the Middle East is in flames, when on the borders of Jordan and Syria dozens of men, women and children are slaughtered,” making a statement like this “over a decision by the Defense Ministry to build a few dozen homes for the residents of Amona is completely out of proportion,” she told Army Radio.
“I think we need to build in Judea and Samaria,” she said, using the biblical term for the West Bank.
Last week, the Defense Ministry Civil Administration’s Planning Authority approved 98 homes to be built to replace the slated-to-be-razed Amona outpost, according to a Channel 2 report. The approval went largely unnoticed due to the death of former Israeli president Peres earlier that day.
An additional 200 units were scheduled to be approved by the authority at a later date, according to the report.
In a response following the US statements, Israel’s Foreign Ministry contended that the construction was not a new settlement.
“The 98 housing units approved in Shiloh do not constitute a ‘new settlement,’” the ministry said in a statement. “This housing will be built on state land in the existing settlement of Shiloh and will not change its municipal boundary or geographic footprint.”
The ministry also reiterated Israel’s stance that the settlements are not the main cause of the stalled peace process with the Palestinians.
“The real obstacle to peace is not the settlements – a final status issue that can and must be resolved in negotiations between the parties — but the persistent Palestinian rejection of a Jewish state in any boundaries,” the statement said.
AFP contributed to this report.