Bennett, Netanyahu spar over right-wing bona fides after settlement curbs

Jewish Home laments return to 2-state solution after details from cabinet meeting said to show PM limiting Jerusalem construction; Likud accuses Bennett of giving in to leftists

Education Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a plenum session in the Knesset on December 5, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a plenum session in the Knesset on December 5, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett lamented Sunday that Israel had returned to the “same old” approach of a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, as leaked quotes from last Thursday’s security cabinet meeting indicated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was imposing a raft of measures to limit settlement construction.

Netanyahu’s Likud party shot back with a statement accusing Bennett of endangering Israel by giving in to left-wing groups.

Bennett, who has been pushing for Israel to annex sections of the West Bank following the election of US President Donald Trump, was speaking following the publication of excerpts from the meeting held late Thursday that showed Netanyahu not only moving away from such steps, but adding new impediments.

On Friday, the government announced self-imposed limits on settlement construction, restricting new building in most cases to areas already inside a settlement’s footprint.

“We are back to the same old two-state solution that will lead nowhere but to frustration,” Bennett tweeted. “I can’t complain because this (two states) has always been Netanyahu’s declared policy.”

Bennett said Israel should have acted differently.

“This was a strategic opportunity that was missed,” he said. “Instead of presenting an alternative, we were passive.”

This tweets appeared to be a reversal of Bennett’s initial comments after the cabinet meeting when he said that “the arrangement is a fitting one, but the proof will be in the pudding,” according to a report in the Hebrew-language Walla website.

The Likud party slammed Bennett, saying that the prime minister was acting responsibly in the best interests of Israel’s security.

“It is amusing to read Bennett’s tweets at Prime Minister Netanyahu, who acts with determination, wisdom and responsibility for the security of Israel and for the settlements,” Netanyahu’s party said in a statement.

The statement went on to accuse Bennett of being soft on Palestinians and giving in to left-wing groups.

“Bennett is the last one to preach about withstanding pressure when he, as education minister, gave in entirely to pressure from the New Israel Fund. He left the curriculum with [Palestinian poet] Mahmoud Darwish, giving responsibility for setting the civics curriculum to an extreme leftist woman, and turning a blind eye to Palestinian incitement in schools in the Arab and East Jerusalem sector financed by the Ministry of Education,” the statement said referring to controversies during Bennett’s times as education minister.

Bennett’s comments came after the Haaretz daily, citing five participants in the closed-door meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Netanyahu not only proposed limits to Israeli settlements, but also a slew of measures aimed at benefiting the Palestinians, including allowing Palestinians to build in Area C of the West Bank, the part of the territory under full Israeli civil and military control.

The prime minister also told his cabinet that the Trump administration is eager to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and stressed the importance of Israel not being seen as the party that caused the process to fail.

US President Donald Trump, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/Saul Loeb)
US President Donald Trump, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/Saul Loeb)

He stressed several times that Trump is determined to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and to reach a deal between the two sides.

“This is a very friendly administration and we need to be considerate of the president’s requests,” Netanyahu reportedly said, referring to Trump’s statements that he would like to see settlement construction limited.

Even though Netanyahu had said that there will be “no limits” on construction in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, he stressed that “we have to act wisely,” Haaretz reported, implying that construction in the capital will not automatically be green-lighted.

Netanyahu also said he would limit the committee that approves construction in the settlements to meeting once every three months, instead of once a week, a move that could practically freeze construction if it fails to meet for any reason.

Netanyahu explained his rationale. After every meeting, the committee publishes its decisions on building, which are often only technical decisions that do not contribute to growth in settlement, yet this causes a media frenzy leading to tension and friction with the international community.

By reducing the number of meetings Netanyahu hopes to reduce the international condemnations and criticisms.

However, a spokesperson for the West Bank Yesha Council told Haaretz that this move may have a much greater impact. If Netanyahu or Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman were to cancel one planning session, it would mean that no new plans, even for extensions to existing properties, could be advanced for half a year.

Netanyahu stressed to his ministers that the new policy is not part of an agreement or informal understanding with the White House, but that he knows that the Trump administration will be keeping a very close eye the implementation of the plan.

He said that there is no point in trying to mislead the Americans because they know about every single house built in every settlement.

The Prime Minister’s Office said overnight Thursday-Friday any future construction would be limited to existing settlement boundaries or adjacent to them.

However, if legal, security or topographical limitations do not allow adherence to those guidelines, new homes will be built outside the current settlement boundaries but as close as possible to them.

Israel will also prevent the construction of any new illegal outposts, Netanyahu told his ministers.

The White House on Friday welcomed the new policy.

The late Thursday Israeli announcement came hours after top ministers unanimously approved a new settlement, the first in decades, for the evacuees of the illegal Amona outpost.

Notwithstanding the Israeli unilateral steps to curry favor with the US, Israel Radio reported Sunday that the negotiations between Israel and the US over settlement construction were put on hold on Sunday morning after Netanyahu and Jason Greenblatt — Trump’s special envoy — and working groups on both sides failed to reach understandings on the issue.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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