Netanyahu willing to stand up to Trump on peace plan, says official

Senior Israeli official says PM has conveyed to US president what policies he’d reject, told him Israel must have ‘complete control’ of all areas west of the Jordan River

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

US President Donald Trump, left, welcomes visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
US President Donald Trump, left, welcomes visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

KYIV, Ukraine — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is willing to go head to head with US President Donald Trump over his administration’s peace plan if it contains demands rejected by Israel’s government, a senior Israeli official said on Tuesday.

The official, a member of Netanyahu’s delegation to Ukraine who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the prime minister has proven in the past he can stand up to US presidents and is willing to do the same with Trump, if necessary.

Netanyahu has communicated to Trump what polices he would reject, according to the official, among them the demolition of even a single West Bank settlement home, dividing Jerusalem, or allowing Palestinian refugees and their descendants the “right of return” to homes they fled or were expelled from after Israel’s creation in 1948.

The senior official said Netanyahu also stressed that Israel must retain “complete control” of all areas west of the Jordan River, apparently referring to security control.

The premier has previously said he would oppose giving up military control over those areas as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Such a policy is rejected by the Palestinians, who seek a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US National Security Adviser John Bolton tour the Jordan Valley, in the West Bank, on June 23, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The official’s comments came just days after Trump said his administration would likely release its long-delayed peace plan following Israel’s elections in September.

Trump said he thought the US might “release small parts of it beforehand.”

The political portion of the plan was to have been unveiled this summer, but was delayed after Netanyahu failed to cobble together a coalition following the April elections and called a fresh vote, now scheduled for September 17.

The Americans are likely to give the winning party a chance to form a government before releasing the plan, something that could add several weeks to the timetable.

Speaking to reporters before returning to Israel, Netanyahu said there is a “very great likelihood” the peace plan will be released in the coming weeks. He also said Israelis should keep in mind who they want leading peace talks when they go to the polls.

“Israel needs to decide who they want to conduct the negotiations over the peace proposal: Netanyahu or Lapid and Gantz?” he said.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, July 31, 2019 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The US has so far kept the political elements of its plan under wraps, while the economic aspects of it were presented in June by Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner at an American-led conference in Bahrain. The economic side of the plan would see a $50 billion investment package for the Palestinians and the wider region.

The Palestinians skipped the Bahrain conference and have rejected the peace plan outright, pressing on with their boycott of the administration since Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017 and cut Palestinian aid.

Netanyahu said he is willing to wait and see the contents of the plan, but reiterated he would not compromise on Israel’s security.

No details have been published so far about how the plan tackles key issues such as a potential independent Palestinian state, Israeli control over the West Bank, the fate of Jerusalem and the so-called right of return.

However, US officials have indicated that they will back “Palestinian autonomy” and self-governance, but stop short of endorsing the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The senior official also addressed Israel’s decision last week to bar Democratic representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from entering the country, saying Netanyahu had no regrets about doing so.

The official said Israel would not necessarily bar any US legislator who supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, as the 2017 law allowing BDS supporters to be banned from the country only applies to those who “lead” or “promote” boycotts of the Jewish state.

Tlaib and Omar, however, are “leading spokespeople” for BDS, the official said.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., right, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., at a news conference, August 19, 2019 at the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Netanyahu has defended his decision to ban Tlaib and Omar from entering Israel, which was widely criticized by Democratic leaders and leading Jewish groups in the US.

He justified the move by noting Omar and Tlaib, freshman congresswomen respectively from Minnesota and Michigan, support BDS and listed the destination on their itinerary as Palestine and not Israel.

Hebrew media reports claimed Netanyahu had been heavily pressured by Trump to block the two congresswomen. The announcement that Israel would not allow the pair in came shortly after Trump tweeted that the Jewish state would be showing weakness if it gave them permission to come.

Tlaib then submitted a letter requesting to be allowed in despite the ban, citing her elderly grandmother, and promised not to promote boycotting Israel during her visit. The request was approved by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri on humanitarian grounds, but Tlaib later said she had decided not to go under “humiliating terms.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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