Bennett pledges to continue settlement construction

Hawkish minister’s statement is latest in series of warnings to Netanyahu from coalition members against possible concessions in peace talks

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Then Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 22, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Then Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 22, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett promised on Tuesday to continue settlement construction despite Palestinian demands that Israel freeze building in the West Bank ahead of the imminent renewal of bilateral negotiations.

“We will continue building, and you will see this soon,” said Bennett, who heads the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party, at an event in the Shiloh settlement in the northern West Bank. “I am sending the message from here to all the parties in the negotiations: The land of Israel belongs to the nation of Israel.”

Bennett’s statements came on the heels of his threats Monday to collapse the government by voting against the coalition’s proposed budget unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advances a bill creating a Basic Law that would put any peace deal to a national referendum.

Netanyahu had already committed to such a measure. “I don’t think these decisions can be made, if there is a deal, by one government or another, but need to be brought as a national decision,” the prime minister said Sunday. He added that his main guiding principles in the talks will be to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel and to avoid a future Palestinian state becoming an Iranian-backed “terror state.”

Also on Tuesday, a few settlers from Amona, a contentious outpost with a standing demolition order, began clearing out of their caravans without a fuss — two days ahead of the court-set date for their departure, July 24.

Amona was the scene of violence between settlers and Israeli troops during a previous evacuation in 2006, which left hundreds injured. Amona’s evacuation was deferred three times recently. The High Court of Justice gave the state a July 15 deadline to clear the site.

The Amona outpost, on a hilltop outside Ofra in the central West Bank, was founded without state authorization in 1995 on Palestinian land and is home to around 200 people, who live in trailer homes and semi-permanent buildings. The outpost has been the subject of years of legal wrangling.

Tuesday’s statement isn’t the first time Bennett has come out against a settlement freeze as reports of renewed negotiations have emerged.

“It’s been proven that when we stand firm in our demands, we can enter talks without preconditions, without construction freezes, and certainly without the crazy demand that we base negotiations on the ’67 lines,” Bennett said Saturday. “As negotiations get underway, we will insist on continuing construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank. History has taught us that building produces life, while dismantling settlements produces terror.”

A total settlement freeze has been a central Palestinian condition for returning to talks in recent years. The last attempt at negotiations, in 2010, ended after three weeks when Israel rebuffed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s demand for the extension of its 10-month settlement building freeze. The PA president had waited until the last month of the freeze to agree to sit down and talk.

Israel has said it is willing to offer other goodwill gestures in the early stages of the talks, including the reported release of 82 “serious” Palestinian prisoners, held since before the Oslo Accords were signed 20 years ago — but Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio that “a settlement building freeze isn’t on the table.”

Housing Minister Uri Ariel, also of the Jewish Home party, which has strong links to the settler movement, said Sunday that a freeze was “inappropriate for the Jewish people, for the land of Israel and for a sovereign state… we are in favor of building as much as possible.”

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, from the ruling Likud party, said halting construction in the settlements would be “immoral, un-Jewish and inhuman.”

Israeli sources say the talks are set to last from nine to 12 months. Israel will be represented by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu envoy Yitzhak Molcho, and the Palestinians by veteran chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. US Secretary of State John Kerry said last Friday he expected the talks to resume in Washington this week, but Israeli officials said logistics might require a further week of preparation.

A Palestinian spokesperson said formal negotiations would take place only when Israel consented to freeze settlement expansion and negotiate based on the 1967 lines. Israeli ministers shot back that they would agree to none of those stipulations.

Should Netanyahu’s coalition turn on him, the prime minister could count on support from across the aisle. Labor Party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich, who leads the opposition, has said her party would support Netanyahu should a peace deal come to the table.

“I hope that Prime Minister Netanyahu, who declared loud and clear that he supports the two-state solution, will make the necessary decisions,” Yachimovich said at the weekend. “We should not just settle for a renewal of negotiations but do everything possible to work towards real accords.”

The Times of Israel staff and JTA contributed to this report. 

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