Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini last week that Israel is prepared to resume negotiations with the Palestinians and to define boundaries for the major settlement blocs in the West Bank, the Haaretz newspaper reported Tuesday, quoting an unnamed source.
In a marked departure from his long-held stance, Netanyahu showed willingness to reach an understanding with the Palestinians that would involve Israeli territorial concessions in the West Bank, the report said.
The understanding would include annexing major West Bank settlement blocs to Israel.
The source noted that Netanyahu is seeking clear boundaries to enable Israel to continue building in the major settlement blocs without incurring the wrath of the international community.
However, a second source quoted by Haaretz assessed that Netanyahu’s apparent about-face — the prime minister has previously balked at discussing the contours of a future Palestinian state — merely constituted an attempt on his part to pay lip service to the peace process as a stalling tactic to deflect international pressure.
The closed-door meeting between Netanyahu and Mogherini was attended by National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen and close Netanyahu confidant Yitzhak Molcho, while Israel’s EU envoy, David Waltzer, and other Foreign Ministry representatives were left out.
Mogherini was in Israel last week for a two-day visit to jump-start peace talks that included meetings with Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other high-ranking officials in Israel and the West Bank.
Mogherini was “very satisfied” with her meeting with Netanyahu and defined it a success, Haaretz reported, citing unnamed sources connected to the talks. Still, Mogherini reportedly found it difficult to decide whether Netanyahu’s remarks were authentic or were simply designed to placate EU officials.
“I’m interested in also seeing steps on the ground that will back up your declarations and show commitment to a solution of two states for two peoples,” the report’s source quoted her as saying.
In response, Netanyahu was quoted as saying that “It’s clear there are areas that will remain under Israeli control under any agreement, just as it’s clear there are areas that will remain under Palestinian control under any agreement.”
Thus, the prime minister reportedly continued, there should be understandings that will allow Israel to build in those areas that are to remain under its control under a future agreement with the Palestinians.
Against a backdrop of rising international pressure and European economic measures aimed at West Bank settlements, Netanyahu’s main goal at the meeting was to show willingness, desire and enthusiasm for the peace process, another senior Israeli official said.
The official noted that with the ongoing deadlock in the peace process, Netanyahu is concerned by proposed legislation that would see Brussels impose sanctions on settlements, as well by as a French initiative to impose a resolution to the conflict via the UN Security Council.
The remarks were a clear departure from Netanyahu’s pre-election remarks disavowing the possibility of a Palestinian state during his tenure, which seen as an attempt to rally constituents from his right-wing support base. Those comments were sharply denounced by EU officials along with US President Barack Obama and domestic political adversaries and shored up skepticism of Netanyahu’s willingness to commit to a two-state solution. He later walked back the statement, saying two days after the election that he backs a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.
After Israel, Mogherini continued on to Qatar to enlist Gulf state support for a regional peace process with Israel that would run concurrently with a peace track with the Palestinians.
“I believe, we believe that a GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] engagement, especially revising the Arab Peace Initiative, could be crucial to offer a new regional framework, a new international framework, to relaunch the peace process and to hopefully lead it to some concrete result. Inshallah,” she said Sunday in Doha.
In response to Netanyahu’s reported willingness to delineate the borders of West Bank settlement blocs, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel of the hawkish Jewish Home party said that the reported offer sets a “dangerous precedent” that goes against his stated aim and guidelines.
“I expect all members of the coalition headed by the prime minister to keep to these fundamental lines,” Ariel, a proponent of annexing the West Bank, said Tuesday.
But the newly inducted public security minister, Gilad Erdan, backed Netanyahu’s stance, but said that such negotiations would be contingent on an end to Palestinian unilateral diplomatic action against Israel.
“If there will ever be a a true partner for peace on the Palestinian side that will be willing to end the conflict, then there will be territorial concessions [on our part] — which we will try to make as small as possible,” Erdan told Israel Radio Tuesday.
“The prime minister is saying that we’re prepared to sit at the table. The Palestinians will propose their territorial demands. We also have our demands, our claims and our rights pertaining to the Land of Israel,” he said. “But first, let’s see them sit at the table. Let’s see Mogherini prevent Abbas from pursuing unilateral action against the State of Israel; let’s [see her] bring him to the negotiating table.”