WASHINGTON — Israel’s settlement policy is not governed by the United States and the incoming Trump administration will not change that, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the annual Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum for Middle East Policy on Sunday.
In his comments delivered via video link, the prime minister also said he would raise the “bad” Iran nuclear deal with president-elect Donald Trump, and urged continued US intervention in the Middle East. He also appeared to brush off fears of an uptick in anti-Semitism in the US, noting that the fringe trend of anti-Jewish hatred was a feature of all democracies.
During the event, Netanyahu was asked whether Trump’s incoming administration will allow Israel to do whatever it wants regarding settlement building in the West Bank.
“Well, I think we have been doing what we want,” Netanyahu told host Haim Saban.
Right-wing politicians have contended that settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has nearly ground to a halt under the Obama administration, which forcefully condemns any building over the Green Line.
In remarks delivered at the symposium titled “Challenges for the Trump Administration in the Middle East,” Netanyahu said the US should maintain its longstanding position of exerting power in the Middle East, in a departure from Trump, who has spoken of curbing US intervention in Middle East regional affairs.
“I believe the US is the indispensable power in the world and in the Middle East, and I believe it must remain so,” he said.
Trump has a “clear vision of America’s role,” Netanyahu said, citing recent conversations with him as a candidate and president-elect.
Netanyahu in his remarks also reiterated his opposition to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and said that stance wouldn’t change under a Trump administration.
“Israel is committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” he said. “That has not changed and will not change. As far as President-elect Trump — I look forward to speaking to him about what to do about this bad deal.”
“Since the deal was signed, Iran has become a more aggressive power,” he said, accusing Tehran of developing missiles that can reach the United States.
“We have to stop Iran’s march to the bomb; its development of long-range missiles; its support for terrorism in the Middle East and throughout the world,” he said.
Netanyahu declined to respond to a question on whether military action was on the table to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, saying only: “We’re committed.”
In his comments, Netanyahu appeared to downplay fears of a global rise in anti-Semitism — including the surge of hate crimes in the US in the wake of 2016 US presidential election — describing the trend as a fringe phenomenon.
“Anti-Semitism has always been there, even in healthy democracies,” he said, expressing confidence in the US ability to combat the bigotry.
Turning to the peace process, Netanyahu reiterated his support for a two-state solution, but blamed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for the moribund peace talks.
“I haven’t changed my vision for two states for two peoples, it’s the only way we’ll get to peace. The core of the conflict is the Palestinians’ refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” Netanyahu charged. “This is what’s always driven the conflict.”
The Israeli premier accused Abbas of “refusing” to negotiate despite being prodded by Jerusalem “hundreds” of times. He said he did not understand why “the press doesn’t get” that Israel is willing to negotiate and the Palestinians are the “rejectionists.”
Pressed about whether world leaders believe in his resolve to reach peace with the Palestinians is genuine, Netanyahu asserted that “the majority of the world’s governments” understand that Israel “is a force of moderation” and a “beacon of tolerance” in a “dark” Middle East.
Netanyahu said that when world leaders routinely ask him about the status of peace talks, he responds: “I’m prepared to stop everything I’m doing right now, and I want you to invite me to your country (to talk peace with the Palestinians)… right away, no preconditions.”
But then, those governments send envoys to Ramallah and return empty-handed because Abbas is unwilling to engage in direct talks, he said.
In light of Abbas’s attitude, Netanyahu said the best approach to peace building would be a “regional” one. “Going through UN resolutions is not the way to advance peace,” he said.
He also dismissed a question about Israel’s increased isolation in the international community, and efforts to boycott Israel over its policies regarding the Palestinians.
Netanyahu said he was not worried about the boycott movement, because many countries seek out Israelis technology and proven track record fighting terror. They also know Israel wants peace, he asserted. Automatic voting majorities against Israel in the UN were also starting to change, he said.
He stressed that, in the Middle East, only the strong survive. “Nobody makes peace with the weak,” he said. “In the Middle East, the weak don’t survive… The strong and the smart survive.”
In his final remarks, Netanyahu derided the notion that Israel’s press is not free, saying it was more free than in any other country worldwide, and that he was attacked by the Israeli media more than any other home leader is attacked by the press in other countries. “There is no country [whose press] attacks its leader more than the Israeli press attacks me,” he said.