Netanyahu backpedals on possiblity of unilateral pullout

Likud party statement says PM’s comments were misinterpreted, promises mistakes of 2005 disengagement won’t be repeated

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participates in a conversation at the Center for American Progress with CAP president Neera Tanden, November 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participates in a conversation at the Center for American Progress with CAP president Neera Tanden, November 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday walked backed a comment he made a day earlier suggesting that an Israeli unilateral pullout from the West Bank was possible under the right security conditions.

“The prime minister didn’t speak of a unilateral withdrawal but of the possibility of unilateral steps, specifically those that would strengthen Israel’s security and diplomatic interests in the face of terror,” Netanyahu’s Likud party said in a Hebrew-language statement to the press, some 12 hours after Netanyahu made his remarks during an event at a progressive Washington think tank, the Center for American Progress.

“The interpretation of the prime minister’s comments yesterday in the US is misleading and inaccurate; the prime minister will not evacuate [settlements] and will not uproot [people]. That mistake will not be repeated,” said the statement, in reference to the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, when over 8,000 Israelis left or were forcibly removed from their homes in settlements in the Palestinian enclave.

Netanyahu also tweeted a condensed, first-person version of the statement, concluding: “I have no intention of evacuating or uprooting towns. That mistake won’t recur.”

Earlier Wednesday in Washington, Netanyahu — initially dismissive of the idea — appeared to say that such a pullout from the West Bank was “possible” if it had the international community’s backing and fully satisfied Israel’s security concerns.

In the wide-ranging interview with the Center for American Progress’s president and CEO, Neera Tanden, the prime minister struck a somewhat pessimistic note, arguing that the Palestinians are currently unwilling to make peace with Israel. But it could be, he added, that regional Arab countries might pressure them into an agreement. He also suggested that the complex issue of Jerusalem is unsolvable and that the city would have to remain under Israeli sovereignty.

Netanyahu reiterated his demands for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the Jewish state and for an Israeli “long-term security presence” in the West Bank. While this is the “right formula” for a peace deal, it is unlikely to happen in the immediate future, he said.

Later on, during a question and answer session, David Makovsky, the director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, asked Netanyahu how he intends to prevent Israel from becoming a bi-national in the absence of a negotiated solution.

“Unilateralism works less well than a negotiated solution,” the prime minister responded. “In any case, the main problem that we have is the [need for] acceptance of the principle that Israel will take care of security in the areas west of the Jordan.”

The trouble with the 2005 Gaza Disengagement was that Israel did not only withdraw all settlers but also that it left no security forces there, Netanyahu added. As a result, the coastal enclave has become a launch pad for rockets threatening all of Israel, he said.

“Unless you have an Israeli capability to actually prevent the use of territories that we hand over in a civilian sense, that we can patrol it from a security point of view — that’s where you get into trouble.”

In addition to the rockets, Israel is now facing “terror tunnels,” which further complicates a potential withdrawal of IDF troops from the West Bank, Netanyahu said. “Any delineation of a border would be hundreds of kilometers, so you’d have thousands of tunnels, and these are terror tunnels from which terrorists can emerge and take people hostage or kill them or squirrel them back.

“The only way you deal with that, is to assure that from a security point of view, Israel has [control], for the foreseeable future, until you can prove otherwise, that somebody else can responsibly take that territory, Israel has the security control. I don’t see the Palestinians agreeing to that,” Netanyahu said.

“Unilateralism… I suppose that’s possible too, but it would have to meet Israeli security criteria and that would also require broader international understanding than exists,” he concluded.

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