Likud-Beytenu puts Jerusalem, settlement construction at fore of its election campaign

Addressing launch event, Netanyahu vows to push for ‘strong leadership’; Meretz party’s four-point peace plan calls for nullification of Oslo Accords

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his No. 2, Avigdor Liberman, on Tuesday officially launched the elections campaign of Likud-Yisrael Beytenu, and announced that continued construction in East Jerusalem and West Bank settlements — despite international censure — stood at the forefront of the party’s game plan.

“With God’s help we will continue to live and build in Jerusalem, which shall remain united under Israeli sovereignty,” Netanyahu said. “In recent years we did much to strengthen settlements [in the West Bank], and we will continue to act to strengthen the settlements.”

The Netanyahu administration in recent weeks approved the construction of several thousand housing units in East Jerusalem neighborhoods and West Bank settlements, prompting a tidal wave of international condemnation. The initiatives came partly in response to the United Nations General Assembly’s recognition of a Palestinian nonmember observer state, a move which Israel staunchly opposed — although there have been indications that the announced building plans were also fueled, at least in part, by the desire to strengthen the party’s right-wing credentials ahead of the January 22 elections.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu touted his strong defense and foreign-policy experience, extolling himself as the only candidate capable of safeguarding Israel in the face of Iranian and terrorist threats.

“Israeli citizens need to figure out whether they want a prime minister who’ll be forced to devote much of his time to petty politics, or a prime minister who’ll devote all his time and efforts to protect the state and to empower it,” he said.

“I have no doubt what the answer is,” he added confidently, to the thunderous applause of the sizable crowd of Likud and Yisrael Beytenu party members that had turned out at the Jerusalem International Convention Center.

Evoking the imagery of a united Jerusalem, some members of the crowd bore posters emblazoned with Netanyahu’s visage before the stones of the Western Wall along with the election slogan “A strong prime minister, a strong Israel.” Others held aloft placards with the united list’s official motto, “Strong leadership, a strong Israel.”

The prime minister also vowed that his government would push for a universal draft law and governmental reform, planks that would garner support from Israel’s secular voters.

Addressing the crowd, Liberman dismissed claims that the government’s construction and expansion of West Bank settlements isolates Israel internationally, and said statements to that effect were the hysterics of lone critics.

“There is a dispute between [Israel] and the world. The dispute is over construction in Jerusalem and the settlement blocs. We therefore need a united and strong government that knows how to withstand pressure,” he said. “That’s the difference between us and the left. We want a rebuilt Jerusalem, and they want a divided Jerusalem.”

Liberman entreated voters to empower the Likud-Beytenu list so that it would win 45 seats in the election. Recent polls indicate that it would likely receive 35-36.

On the other end of the political spectrum, the Meretz party on Tuesday announced a new four-point foreign-policy plan that emphasized that “a Palestinian state is an Israeli interest” and advocated Israeli and American recognition of a Palestinian state.

The platform stated that the Oslo Peace Accords should be nullified as the basis of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and that reinitiated talks should be conducted as if between two sovereign states. It also called for “mutually empowering steps,” namely settlement freezes, the release of Palestinian prisoners, and the removal of West Bank checkpoints.

The plan also called for the establishment of a regional quartet — comprised of Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia — to join the Quartet on the Middle East (the United States, the UN, European Union, and Russia) in order to “strengthen governments in negotiation through regional guarantees and balances.”

Finally, Meretz announced its support for Israel’s immediate acceptance of the Saudi-championed Arab Peace Initiative as the basis for regional peace agreements.

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