'Palestinians can relax'; moving the US embassy to Jerusalem 'won't change anything'

Likud minister: Trump could edge Palestinians toward peace

Tzachi Hanegbi rejects annexation bids, says Israel should focus on retaining settlement blocs in final agreement

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

MK Tzachi Hanegbi during a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 15, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Tzachi Hanegbi during a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 15, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The new US administration and its pro-Israel positions could make the Palestinians more amenable to restarting peace negotiations with Israel, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said Monday.

“The fact that we have such a major change in the US could make the Palestinians become more realistic and more pragmatic about going back to the negotiating table,” he said.

But the international community, Hanegbi argued, is unlikely to align with the incoming president’s expected recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or his supposed view that settlements are not an obstacle to peace.

The veteran politician also cautioned that even with Donald Trump in the White House, it will be difficult to to abrogate or even amend the nuclear deal with Iran.

In a far-reaching briefing with reporters in Jerusalem, Hanegbi — a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — expressed several positions that put him at odds with most senior members of his Likud party. For instance, he opposed the Regulation Bill — a piece of legislation geared to legalizing West Bank outposts built on private Palestinian land — and rejected a unilateral Israeli annexation of Ma’ale Adumim, a large Jerusalem suburb east of the Green Line.

Rather, he endorsed a two-state solution and called for renewed peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.

“We believe that now is the time. It’s clear now, even after this event in Paris, that there is no substitute for direct negotiations, that only the parties themselves can find the common denominator to reach an agreement about all disputed issues,” Hanegbi said, referring to Sunday’s peace conference, hosted by the French government and attended by some 70 countries, but not Israel or the Palestinians.

Still, he warned, time is not in anyone’s favor, though the Palestinians have more to lose than Israel, in the event of ongoing stalemate. “We go on with our lives and build our countries. We put all our energies in the real issues, while the Palestinians continue to suffer from devastation and despair and a feeling of being the eternal victim.”

Israel is therefore urging Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “to take advantage of the fact that there is real substantial change in the world now,” Hanegbi said at the briefing, organized by the Israel Project. The fact that a new president will be moving into the White House later this week is “a very good opportunity for both Israel and the Palestinians to put aside all their tensions and frustrations and despair, and, whatever our emotions are, go back to the negotiating table.”

Hanegbi wouldn’t hazard a prediction as to whether Trump will agree with the Netanyahu government on every single matter. But, he asserted, in contrast with outgoing US President Barack Obama, Trump feels the same way about two issues of special importance to Israel: the nuclear deal with Iran and the contention that Israeli settlements are a key obstacle to Middle East peace.

“This is a powerful change. It’s positive for the world, and for America; it’s not only an Israeli interest,” the minister said. “How will it be implemented practically during Trump’s term? It’s not easy to predict. Because, in a way, the [Iran] agreement is a fait accompli and it’s not easy to annihilate or change it.”

Last month, Netanyahu announced his plan to work with Trump on changing the Iran deal, saying he had “about five things” in mind. He did not elaborate.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at the Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at the Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The issue of settlements “is problematic in itself,” Hanegbi said. “The world is not going to adopt Trump’s view about it just because Trump doesn’t feel the same animosity toward the settlements as other leaders.”

Hanegbi, one of the few Likud ministers who support Netanyahu’s acceptance of the “two states for two peoples” formula, said the Obama administration’s “not-one-brick policy” of condemning construction even in the settlement blocs was problematic because it made the Palestinians refuse to resume negotiations in the absence of a complete settlement freeze.

‘We believe the new US policy will make easier for the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table’

In their meetings with Israelis, Palestinian leaders said they could not be more forgiving on settlements than the US and negotiate while construction continued apace, according to Hanegbi. “This was damaging to the very chance that the Palestinians could be more pragmatic. Now, we believe the new policy in America will make it easier for the Palestinians to make a decision concerning coming back to the negotiating table.”

The key to resuming talks lies in convincing Abbas that he’s not wasting his time, that Israel is genuinely interested in reaching an agreement, he said, indicating that time was the crucial factor.

“This is why we believe that this is the place now to put an end to stalling and go back [to negotiation], and they’ll be able to witness whether there is readiness on the Israeli side to go forward in the negotiations,” he said. “They should give us this realistic chance to prove that we mean business…. There’s nothing we want more, in the political arena, than to try to find a solution, as we did with Egypt and Jordan.”

While Israel rejected Sunday’s Paris peace conference as “useless,” Jerusalem was not opposed in principle to outside parties making efforts to help Israelis and Palestinians reach peace. “We don’t object to international involvement, to mediation, to helping the sides make decisions, promising the sides things that motivate them to be more pragmatic on the substantial negotiation,” Hanegbi said.

Israel is happy to work with the Americans, the Europeans or even the UN, he added. “It’s okay, as long as the idea is that [international involvement] is some kind of a theater, but the real play is between the parties themselves.”

That is why Netanyahu did not reject the idea of meeting Abbas in Moscow or anywhere else, the minister said. “We say to all the leaders who come to Jerusalem and urge us to continue negotiations: You pick the time, you pick the place, call the parties and we will be there — but without preconditions. But [Abbas] says, ‘Yes, I’ll be there, but first Israel has to end settlements and all these preconditions that are unacceptable.”

If the Trump administration decides it wants to play a role in fostering Israeli-Palestinian peace, “we will be more than happy,” as long as Washington’s role remains helping the parties “sit in intimate environment to try to put our disputes to an end.”

Tzachi Hanegbi (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Tzachi Hanegbi (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Hanegbi, who held his first ministerial post in 1996, during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, said he was the only Likud minister to oppose the so-called Regulation Bill, even though he voted for it.

On December 7, the controversial legislation, advanced by the pro-settlement movement, passed its first reading, but has since stalled.

“That’s it. At the moment, there’s no more effort to go forward with this legislation,” Hanegbi said. The bill was originally intended to solve the problems of settlers who, in good faith, built homes on land that later turned out to belong to Palestinians. The government is currently trying to find a solution for Israelis who fear eviction orders, he added, but the Regulation Bill “is not the right way,” since it creates the global perception that Israel is not interested in a two-state solution.

“This is something damaging for us and I believe we will find a way not to go forward with this legislation.”

Some of his colleagues argue in favor of the bill, saying that it’s beneficial politically, even if the Supreme Court later declares it unconstitutional, “but I don’t think so,” Hanegbi said. “We should do the right thing, and the right thing is to make an effort to find a solution to the settlers and not to go forward with this legislation.”

A Jewish settler looks at the West Bank settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, from the E-1 area on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem, December 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)
A Jewish settler looks at the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, from the E-1 area on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem, December 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

Hanegbi, whose mother, former MK Geula Cohen, was behind the 1980 law with which Israel annexed East Jerusalem, acknowledged that he may be a minority among Likud members in opposing the unilateral annexation of Ma’ale Adumim.

In recent weeks, coalition lawmakers and ministers have vowed to advance legislation to apply Israeli sovereignty over the Jerusalem suburb, which most Israelis agree will be part of the country under any future peace deal.

The town will eventually be part of sovereign Israel, Hanegbi agreed, “but it’s better for us if it becomes part of Israel through the framework of a final-status [agreement], not through unilateral legislation.

“Especially now, we want to build trust with the Trump administration. We don’t want to defy it. We don’t want to surprise it. We want to see if there’s a place for building and shaping a policy that will bring the Palestinians to the negotiation table and not encourage them to remain reluctant.”

Once Israelis and Palestinians sign a peace treaty and implement a two-state solution, “there will be tunnels or bridges that will allow this area to be practically part of Jerusalem” without hindering a territorially viable Palestinian state,” Hanegbi said. “A solution will be made. But at the moment, unilateral annexation moves are not in the interest of Israel.”

The US embassy in Tel Aviv (photo credit: CC BY Krokodyl/Wikipedia)
The US embassy in Tel Aviv (CC BY Krokodyl/Wikipedia)

On the issue of the US Embassy, Hanegbi said he agreed with his Likud colleagues in hoping Trump will keep his promise and move it from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In 1948, the US was “maybe the only state in the world” that chose not to build its embassy in Jerusalem, he said. That was “abnormal,” but at the time the young State of Israel did not have close relations to Washington and thus was in no position to protest.

Hence, Hanegbi argued, moving the embassy to Jerusalem — the city where he was born 60 years ago — would be merely a rectification of a mistake made long ago.

Responding to critics of Trump’s promise to relocate the embassy, he contended that a move would not prejudge Jerusalem’s status, which will have to be negotiated by Israelis and Palestinians. The two sides argue mainly about the Old City, but even the new US administration won’t be recognizing Israel’s claim to the entire Old City.

“The Palestinians can relax,” he said. “It’s not going to change anything.”

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