Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuffed concerns raised by Britain’s chief rabbi that settlement construction was troubling supporters of Israel in the United Kingdom.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis raised the issue in a meeting between Jewish leaders and Netanyahu in London on Wednesday evening.
According to minutes of the closed one-hour meeting taken by an official in attendance, Mirvis told Netanyahu that friends of Israel approach him with the request to “help us help you,” by limiting settlement expansion.
Netanyahu replied that “settlements are not the issue,” and argued that the Arab-Israeli conflict existed well before the establishment of Israeli settlements beyond the Green Line.
Mirvis was not the only British Jewish leader to recently voice concern over Israel’s deteriorating image in Europe. Speaking to the Herzliya Conference in June, Mirvis’s predecessor Lord Jonathan Sacks said that the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaign made it “almost impossible” for European Jews to support Israel. He said the campaign has already succeeded in dividing American and European Jewish communities.
On Thursday, during a meeting with British parliamentarians, Netanyahu was again pushed on the issue of settlements, but provided a slightly different answer. Most settlers, he said, were living within three urban blocs which are widely recognized as remaining under Israeli sovereignty in a permanent deal.
“There has to be mutual recognition, an end of claims, and an end of demands to flood Israel with the descendants of Palestinian refugees any more than we would flood their territory with the descendants of Israeli settlers. There has to be that symmetry,” he said.
Netanyahu reasserted his aversion to a bi-national state, claiming he does not want to rule over the Palestinians indefinitely.
“I’ve been to wars. I’ve been personally wounded and lost loved ones … wars are bad … the notion that the people of Israel or that I prefer conflict to peace, or that we’re not ready to take steps for peace, is absurd,” he said.
The Israeli premier deployed the same conciliatory tone publicly on Wednesday during his meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, whom he told he was willing to meet with Abbas “anytime, anywhere, now, without preconditions.”
At the meeting with British MPs on Thursday, Netanyahu also said the rise of militant Islam in the Middle East has brought about a “sea change” in Israel’s relations with Sunni Arab states, which could be harnessed to forge a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Speaking to some 120 members of British parliamentary friendship associations in London, Netanyahu said he would be “hard pressed” to name a single Arab leader who does not agree with him about the growing threat of Sunni and Shiite militancy instigated by popular revolutions across the Middle East.
“As a result of this sea change that has taken place, there is also a sea change in Arab-Israeli relations,” Netanyahu told the audience. Leaders of countries bordering the “shattered states” of Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, he added, “have come to view Israel not as an enemy but as an ally in stemming the tide of militant Islamism.”
Netanyahu said that the new-found convergence of interests between the Sunni Arab world and Israel could help bring about a “realistic peace” with the Palestinians, placing pressure on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to sign a deal.
“I believe we could harness this new attitude with the Arab states to create the climate, and possibly the specific solutions, for a Palestinian-Israeli peace which I believe can be summarized as a demilitarized Palestinian state which recognizes the Jewish state.”
This was not the first time Netanyahu has vaguely alluded to rapprochement with unnamed Sunni states. At the Herzliya Conference last year, Netanyahu said that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism was causing many Sunni Arab states to reevaluate their ties with Israel.
In both the meeting with the Jewish leaders on Wednesday and with the British parliamentarians on Thursday, Netanyahu dedicated a considerable amount of time to discuss the growing BDS movement in Europe. Twice, he evoked the 1894 Dreyfus affair, where French Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of collaborating with Germany, sparking anti-Semitic riots across the country.
Netanyahu urged the Jewish leaders to go on the offensive and “boycott the boycotters” who he said were “on the side of barbarism and murder.” He added that only when French writer Emile Zola pointed the finger at Dreyfus’s attackers in his famous article J’accuse (I accuse), did the tide begin to turn on the anti-Semitic trend.
Addressing the massive wave of refugees — mostly from Syria — arriving on the shores of Europe, Netanyahu warned of a looming “tsunami” which many European leaders are in denial of. He mentioned Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and European Council President Donald Tusk as the exceptional leaders who “get it.”
Netanyahu called for a “paradigm shift” in European thinking toward militant Islam, encouraging more robust Western action against the Islamic State group. He said that Israel was the only state that represents Western and European values in a Middle Eastern expanse of “early medievalism.”
He went on to contrast the prevalent anti-Israel attitudes in Europe with those of India, China and Japan, which recognize Israel’s technological achievements and their contribution to the global economy.
Earlier this week, prominent far-left activists and union leaders in Britain, along with three members of Parliament, called for the disinvitation of Netanyahu and urged the British government to impose immediate sanctions on Israel.
On Wednesday hundreds attended a demonstration against the Israeli leader while a petition on the UK Parliament’s website calling for Netanyahu’s arrest during his visit — something not currently possible under British law — has garnered well over 100,000 signatures. The petition claims “over 2,000 civilians” were killed by Israel in the summer 2014 war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, apparently conflating the overall Palestinian death toll with the civilian one. Israel says at least half of the dead were terror operatives.
Stuart Winer and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.