Palestinians not ready for statehood, says PM’s protégé

While Netanyahu talks of ‘historic compromise,’ Deputy Minister Ofir Akunis is the latest Likud MK to reject idea, preferring ‘an interim solution’

Ofir Akunis (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Shay Hayak/Wikipedia)
Ofir Akunis (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Shay Hayak/Wikipedia)

Likud MK Ofir Akunis added his voice to the recent chorus of coalition members downplaying chances of an Israeli peace deal with the Palestinians, telling Israel Radio on Thursday he believed the other side was not yet ready for statehood or even expanded autonomy.

“The Palestinians are not even negotiation partners because they continuously torpedo attempts to resume peace talks and reject Israel’s repeated calls to meet without preconditions,” said Akunis, who is considered a close ally and political protégé of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

While asserting that Netanyahu enjoyed the widespread support of his party and the coalition on all matters of state, including diplomacy with the Palestinians, Akunis — who is deputy minister in charge of government relations with the Knesset — refused to express support for a two-state solution, which most people see as the basis for a peace agreement and which Netanyahu himself has said is the desired outcome of talks.

“I personally believe that in the current state of regional affairs, a long-term interim agreement is the better option,” Akunis said.

Akunis,40, began his political career in 2004 as Netanyahu’s deputy media adviser. He rose in the ranks of the Likud party establishments and continued to advise Netanyahu until he was elected to the Knesset in 2008.

Akunis’s words followed a political firestorm over an interview Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon gave The Times of Israel last week, in which the Likud MK said that the current government does not have a majority in the Knesset to advance any peace deal that entails the creation of a Palestinian state. “Today we’re not fighting it [Netanyahu’s declared goal of a Palestinian state], but if there will be a move to promote a two-state solution, you will see forces blocking it within the party and the government,” he vowed.

The Prime Minister’s Office was quick to disassociate Netanyahu from Danon’s statements, taking the unusual step of contacting The Times of Israel on a Saturday to do so. The prime minister “is interested in a resumption of negotiations without preconditions” and his positions regarding support for a two-state solution remain in force, said PMO sources.

Earlier this week, coalition chairman Yariv Levin, also from Likud, became the new co-chair of the Caucus for Eretz Israel — a political lobby dedicated to fortifying Israel’s presence in all parts of the West Bank.

Knesset caucuses have no legislative power, but Levin’s appointment to the post underlined the widespread and open opposition to Palestinian statehood in the coalition, in general, and in Netanyahu’s own governing Likud party, in particular.

Netanyahu himself said Wednesday that Israel sought a “historic compromise” with the Palestinians to end the conflict “once and for all” and was ready to enter negotiations “without preconditions [and] without delay.”

“I want peace. To achieve peace, we must negotiate peace. We want to see this American effort succeed,” Netanyahu said, after a meeting with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in Warsaw.

“My goal is to see a historic compromise that ends the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians once and for all,” Netanyahu continued. “This will entail a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state, with ironclad security arrangements for Israel — recognition, security, demilitarization…  I look forward to entering those negotiations without preconditions, without delay. I am ready for such a peace. I hope the Palestinians are ready too.”

Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-on, who was interviewed immediately following Akunis Thursday, said his words, as well as those of Danon, Levin and others, exposed the “real face” of the government. Gal-on charged Netanyahu with being disingenuous in his talk of desiring peace, accusing the prime minister of dragging his feet and ignoring the Arab peace initiative.

Giving voice to the ideological divide that exists within the coalition on matters relating to peace with the Palestinians, Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah on Wednesday leveled harsh criticism at the government’s settlement policy.

“The occupation corrupts Israeli society, the IDF, Israeli justice, the Israeli media, Israel’s very consciousness,” Shelah said at a pro-democracy conference. “Its [Israel’s] diplomatic standing is eroding… We have reached a stage where in a UN vote on the Palestinians, only nine countries voted with us. The world has let us know that it is tired of us being an occupying force.”

On Thurday, Shelah told IDF Radio that he thinks Netanyahu’s opinions are closer to his own than to those of his Likud party members.

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