Netanyahu backs contentious outpost bill after alerting White House
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Netanyahu backs contentious outpost bill after alerting White House

PM says UK's May did not have especially harsh words about uptick in settlement building, credits London's diplomatic about-face to 'blunt' letter he sent after UN resolution

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at 10 Downing Street for a meeting in central London on February 6, 2017 with British Prime Minister Theresa May. (AFP PHOTO / Chris J Ratcliffe)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at 10 Downing Street for a meeting in central London on February 6, 2017 with British Prime Minister Theresa May. (AFP PHOTO / Chris J Ratcliffe)

LONDON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he informed the administration of US President Donald Trump about a controversial bill on legalizing West Bank outposts Monday and backs the bill going up for a vote.

The legislation, which would allow Israel to retroactively claim private Palestinian land where Israeli settlers live in exchange for compensation, is expected to be voted on late Monday after a Knesset debate, which began in the afternoon.

Netanyahu had reportedly sought to delay the vote until after he could speak with Trump when the two meet in Washington next week, but the Jewish Home coalition party pushed it forward for its final readings in the Knesset over his objections.

Speaking to reporters from London, where he is on a state visit, Netanyahu said keeping the US abreast before the vote was simply what friends do.

“I never said I want to push it off,” he said from the UK Foreign Office, where he later met with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. “I act according to the national interests. In my view, you don’t surprise friends. Friends don’t surprise each other. Friends update each other. That’s what I did.”

Netanyahu stressed that he did not ask the Americans for permission to pass the legislation — which has been roundly condemned and is expected to be struck down by Israel’s High Court — but merely informed them of his intention to pass the bill through a second and third reading.

He also said he would speak about the White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which failed to mention Jews, when he visits Washington next week.

Netanyahu spoke at length about his meeting with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, hailing a “rapprochement” between the two nations in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May greets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Downing Street in London on Feb. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May greets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Downing Street in London on Feb. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

He said May agreed to start talks now about a free-trade agreement between the two countries, though London cannot sign new trade agreements until it officially leaves the EU.

Ahead of the meeting, May had voiced support for the two-state solution and an aide said it would be high on the agenda.

Netanyahu said that she brought up settlement building but did not go beyond normal discussions on the issue, despite a spike in Israeli announcements of new settlement homes since Trump entered office.

“She did bring up the issue and expressed the government’s known position. The issue came up in our conversation, to the extent that is usual, but not beyond that,” Netanyahu said.

He said he told May that “the settlements are not the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are not an obstacle to peace,” instead blaming Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state as the reason for stagnant peace efforts.

The Israeli leader added that he laid out his positions on the question of Palestinian statehood, saying he has not changed his position that any peace agreement be conditioned on a Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish state and an Israel security presence from the Green Line to the Jordan River.

While Netanyahu in the briefing stopped short of explicitly endorsing the two-state solution, he said his position on the issue hasn’t changed.

Netanyahu also took credit for London’s apparent change of position regarding the settlements and the Palestinian efforts to internationalize the conflict.

The UK voted in favor of UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which harshly criticized the settlements. But in the days and weeks after the December 23 resolution, London went out of its way to stress the settlements were not the only issue that prevents peace. The May government even defied much of the international community when it refused to sign the final statement of the Paris peace conference last month.

Netanyahu indicated this change was due to a long, “blunt” letter he sent to May — and the leaders of the other 13 nations that supported the resolution — in which he explained the Israeli government’s position on the settlements. He refused to provide more detail about the letter’s content.

In addition, he said, during their meeting at 10 Downing Street he presented May with a list of NGOs hostile to Israel that receive funding from the British government, and asked that the UK stop funding such groups. He cited as an example Breaking the Silence, an organization that collects testimonies from ex-IDF soldiers who speak of human rights violations in the Palestinian territories.

Netanyahu had looked to make convincing London to take a harsher stance toward Iran a keystone of his visit, following Iran’s test launch of a ballistic missile last week.

He repeated his criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, arguing that it will eventually allow the regime to easily obtain hundreds of nuclear weapons, but stopped short of explicitly calling on the UK or the US to cancel the pact.

“The Iranian people suffer from their cruel leadership, but the international policy cannot wait for regime change while the country arms itself with ballistic missiles and atomic bombs,” Netanyahu said.

He added that 10 Downing Street “sees eye to eye” with Jerusalem on the need to prevent Iran and its proxies to gain a foothold in the war-torn countries, whether a peace agreement is achieved or not.

Netanyahu refused to answer questions regarding the ongoing corruption probe against him.

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