The first weeks of the new US administration are crucial for Israel because during this period the incoming president will seek to understand what Jerusalem envisions for its future and consolidate his own approach to the peace process, Education Minister Naftali Bennett said.
“I view the next three weeks as a unique window of opportunity that will close,” Bennett said, in a meeting with the editorial staff of The Times of Israel. “Because in those three to four weeks, [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu for the first time will have to say to President [Donald] Trump what he wants. The new administration wants to hear our vision. It’s open to listening.”
Bennett, the leader of the nationalist Jewish Home party, says his vision for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict includes a partial annexation of the West Bank, while giving Palestinians “autonomy on steroids.”
The first step Bennett intends to take, right after Inauguration Day, is proposing a bill to apply Israeli law to Ma’ale Adumim, a Jerusalem suburb outside the pre-1967 lines.
“I want to break the glass ceiling through Ma’ale Adumim,” he said. “But I am not taking any action before January 20,” when Donald Trump is sworn in as 45th US president.
In the long run, Bennett wants to annex all of Area C, 60% of the West Bank where, he said, 450,000 Jews and 70,000-80,000 Arabs live. (The number of Palestinians living in Area C is hotly contested among experts; estimates range from nearly 300,000 to 75,000.) He is ready to extend Israeli citizenship to Palestinians living in these areas, though he assumes most would refuse the offer and choose to merely accept residency.
The minister said he speaks to “many Palestinians” and has noted that they feel “huge frustration, disappointment and disillusionment” with the Palestinian Authority.
“It’s a corrupt regime. It does not have the capacity to create a vibrant state. It would be pretty ridiculous to inject a new Muslim Arab state when many others are disintegrating. There are many Palestinians on the ground that want a new, fresh solution,” he said.
“Donald Trump has shown in his own personal history the ability to take very creative and bold approaches. This [annexing Area C of the West Bank to Israel] is a creative and bold approach. I know it differs from what we’ve been doing for the past two decades. But heck, what we’ve been doing for the past two decades has failed again and again and again,” said Bennett on Monday.
Mere hours after Trump won the November 8 election in a surprise result, Bennett issued a statement declaring “the era of a Palestinian state is over” and called on the Israeli government to abandon its stated support for a two-state solution.
It has been argued that statements like this one prodded the outgoing US administration to support UN Security Council Resolution 2334 last month, which harshly criticized Israeli settlement expansions. US Secretary of State John Kerry, in his subsequent speech on Middle East peace, quoted Bennett’s statement, arguing that “the settler agenda is defining the future of Israel.”
But Bennett refused to accept responsibility for the US abstention, which allowed the December 23 resolution to pass.
“What we’ve seen is a [US] policy that left the Middle East on fire,” he said. “We see now an emboldened Iran. We see a disintegrated Syria. A strengthened and fortified Hezbollah. The whole area is very unstable and Israel is the source of stability and common sense in this region. I was profoundly disappointed by Secretary Kerry’s speech that disregarded all of this.”
‘If someone wants to launch an intifada, that’s their decision. We always need to do the right thing and never cave in to threats’
Kerry’s December 28 speech did nothing to advance any solution, said Bennett, whose parents are Americans and who renounced his US citizenship before entering politics in 2013.
“And I stand behind my values and beliefs. We’re here. We live here. We’re the ones who paid the price of over a thousand Israelis murdered last time we tried out one of those experiences,” he said, apparently referring to the Oslo Accord and the attempt to establish a Palestinian state. “It doesn’t work. We need to think fresh, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Part of the innovative approach he expects from the incoming US administration is the rapid move of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump and his designated envoy to Israel, David Friedman, have repeatedly vowed to relocate the embassy, triggering warnings from the Arab world that this could spark unrest and even violence across the Islamic world.
“It’s long due that all the embassies of the world come to Israel’s capital,” Bennett said. “Jerusalem has been the Jewish capital for just about 3,000 years. It’s recorded in history, it’s recorded in the Bible, it’s recorded in archaeology. Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital way before Paris was France’s capital and London was Britain’s capital and certainly before Washington was America’s capital. It’s wrong that the embassies are not here yet and I believe it would be a very important move for the US to move their embassy here.”
Bennett, a 44-year-old high-tech millionaire-turned-politician, is undeterred by the prospect of violence if Trump were to move the embassy to Jerusalem.
“If someone wants to launch an intifada, that’s their decision. We always need to do the right thing and never cave in to threats,” he said. “If someone threatens you not to go to to your home, because he’ll beat you up if you go to your home, what would you do? Jerusalem’s our home. We cannot capitulate to violence or threat of violence.”
Is the world ready to acquiesce to a West Bank annexation?
The same logic applies to the international community’s expected backlash against a potential annexation of the West Bank, according to Bennett.
“East Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, what many call the West Bank, are not occupied territory, in the sense that we didn’t take it away from any sovereign state,” the education minister said. “They were occupied by Jordan for 19 years illegally, and in 1967 we released them. We’ve been there for 50 years.”
Citing the 1920 San Remo conference, which partitioned the Ottoman Empire territories in the Middle East, Bennett argued that the entire Land of Israel — from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea, is “ours legally. And certainly historically, it’s our homeland.”
Nearly half a million taxpaying Israelis are “second-class citizens” because they live under military rule, he said, referring to the fact that Israel never applied Israeli law to the West Bank.
“It’s time to stop this and apply Israeli law and administration in Area C,” he demanded. “Will the world accept it? I assume a big part of the world will not. Does the world accept that the Western Wall is part of Israel? No. At this point in time, not one country in the world accepts that the Western Wall is part and parcel of Israel. Does the world accept that the Golan Heights is part of Israel? No? But we do. We Israelis do, and with time the world will come to accept it.”
Israelis have been “confusing the world because we sent a double message,” he added. On the one hand, Netanyahu declares that he’s in favor of two states for two peoples. “Yet in many cases our actions don’t always meet that,” Bennett said. “We have to be clear: we have a tiny homeland the size of New Jersey, surrounded by Hezbollah, Hamas, ISIS, al-Qaeda — it doesn’t get better than that, right? And heroically we’re defending ourselves in a democratic society. I’m not about to divide that tiny land. It’s not going to happen.”
Bennett said he is aware that his plan — which includes the annexation of Area C, giving Palestinians “autonomy on steroids” and improving their freedom of movement, economic opportunities and overall quality of life — will not be widely accepted.
“I understand that the international community considers this the end of the world,” he said. But when Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin annexed the Golan Heights in the 1980s, many warned Israel would become a pariah state — “and we didn’t,” Bennett said. “Look at what’s happening in the Islamic world and in Europe — they have bigger fish to fry. We’re not the epicenter of the world. If we know what we want, and present a reasonable plan, we could do it.”