PM: Remote settlements will become enclaves in sub-sovereign Palestinian entity

Insistent that no settlements will be evacuated under any peace deal, Netanyahu tells US podcaster Palestinians will have ‘transportation contiguity, not territorial contiguity’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to plant a tree during an event on the Jewish holiday of Tu BiShvat, in the Jewish settlement of Mevo'ot Yericho, in the West Bank near the Palestinian city of Jericho, February 10, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to plant a tree during an event on the Jewish holiday of Tu BiShvat, in the Jewish settlement of Mevo'ot Yericho, in the West Bank near the Palestinian city of Jericho, February 10, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week that remote settlements and illegal outposts in the West Bank will remain as enclaves surrounded by a future sub-sovereign Palestinian entity, if a peace agreement is reached.

Netanyahu long ago stopped speaking of a willingness to accept a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel, as he once did. In recent years, he has increasingly spoken against the formation of a Palestinian state and stressed his opposition to uprooting any Israeli settlements in a future peace deal. But the right-wing premier’s remarks on the matter during a Wednesday interview with American podcaster Lex Fridman appeared to offer more detail than he has previously shared regarding how he envisions a final settlement with the Palestinians.

The prime minister began by arguing that 90 percent of the roughly 500,000 Israeli settlers live in “urban blocs” that “everybody recognizes… [and] are going to be part of Israel in any future arrangement.” Most peace proposals have indeed envisioned settlements straddling the Green Line as remaining a part of Israel alongside land swaps, though the Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim blocs are viewed as more challenging to incorporate into a future Jewish state, given that they are dozens of kilometers deep into the West Bank.

Netanyahu acknowledged that the remaining 10% of settlers are “scattered in small communities” deeper in the West Bank, but argued that they need not be uprooted in a future peace deal. He noted that Arabs were allowed to remain in Israel after the state was established and added, “We don’t say ‘Israel has to be ethnically cleansed from its Arab citizens in order to have peace.'” Critics have pointed out that Israel has worked to evict and block Palestinian expansion in East Jerusalem as well as the 60% of the West Bank known as Area C where all of its settlements are located and which Netanyahu has sought to annex.

But Netanyahu insisted that “We can live among Arabs and Arabs can live among Jews.”

“What is being advanced by those people who say that we can’t live in our ancestral homeland in these disputed areas — nobody says that these are Palestinian areas, and nobody says that these are Israeli areas. We claim them, they claim them. We’ve only been attached to this land for oh, 3,500 years. But it’s a dispute, I agree,” he continued. “But I don’t agree that we should throw out the Arabs, and I don’t think that they should throw out the Jews.”

People at the Evyatar outpost in the West Bank, June 22, 2023. (Flash90)

“They’re going to live in enclaves in sovereign Israel, and we’re going to live in probably enclaves there — probably through transportation contiguity as opposed to territorial contiguity,” he said, echoing ideas used in former president Donald Trump’s 2020 peace proposal, which envisioned the construction of tunnels and bridges to connect Palestinian cities, given that the territory under their control would not be contiguous.

While that plan similarly did not envision Israel uprooting any of its settlements, it did characterize what the Palestinians would be getting as a state, and required Israel to stop expanding its settlement footprint in the interim — something it has not done over the past several years. The Palestinian Authority flatly rejected that plan, while Netanyahu accepted it with reservations.

Netanyahu appeared to make the same argument regarding East Jerusalem, where some 230,000 Jews live. “You’re not going to dismantle half of Jerusalem, that’s not going to happen.” Some 360,000 Palestinians live in this same section of the city, which Palestinians envision as the capital of their future state.

He repeated his assertion that when Israel pulls out of territory, terror groups fill the vacuum, as was the case in Lebanon and Gaza. Critics argue that those Israeli withdrawals, in 2000 and 2005 respectively, were done unilaterally, without security guarantees in place.

While the Palestinian Authority has long expressed support for a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines, Netanyahu claimed that Ramallah would simply use its newfound state “as a springboard to destroy the smaller [than before] Israeli state.”

Netanyahu has long prided himself on having isolated PA President Mahmoud Abbas and has reportedly said Israel must “crush” Palestinian statehood ambitions. On the podcast, he said that “Palestinians should have all the powers to govern themselves and none of the powers to threaten Israel.”

Netanyahu described his proposal as one that offered “less than perfect sovereignty” to the Palestinians with Israel maintaining security control over the entire territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. “I think there is a solution to this. It’s not the perfect world that people think because that model doesn’t apply here.

“People say ‘Yeah, but it’s not a perfect state.’ Okay. Call it ‘limited sovereignty.’ Call it ‘autonomy-plus.’ Call it whatever you want to call it. But that’s the reality,” he said, before later refusing to use the interview’s classification of a “two-state solution.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Not ruling out an override clause

Asked to comment on the ongoing nationwide demonstrations against his government’s effort to overhaul the judiciary, Netanyahu claimed that “quite a few people demonstrating against this…have no idea… what is being discussed” and said they had been “sloganized.”

“Something about mass media right now and the social network[s] is that you can basically feed slogans deliberately with big data and big money… and get into people’s minds… and you can create mass mobilization based on this,” he said.

He insisted he was not trying to give too much power to the ruling coalition but rather was seeking to simply move some power away from the judiciary in order to restore a balance of powers.

To demonstrate his seriousness, he pointed to his shelving of legislation that would have allowed the Knesset to override High Court decisions with a 61-member majority. However, he was careful to specify that he only ruled out an override via a “majority of one,” without ruling out the possibility of less extreme versions of the same bill. The premier reportedly told coalition lawmakers earlier this month that he is still open to such proposals.

Netanyahu dismissed the notion that six terms in office can be corrupting, insisting that he is only motivated by the goal of ensuring the security of the state, its economic prosperity, and its peaceful coexistence alongside its neighbors. He argued that he can be voted out if the Israeli people do not approve of his performance.

That has not happened, despite what Netanyahu said was the sometimes “violen[t]” opposition. He recalled a conversation with the late former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who he said once asked him how many media companies he controls. Netanyahu said he told the Italian premier that he does not control any outlets and has had to win elections “the hard way.”

Border police officers scuffle with demonstrators during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, at Ben Gurion Airport, July 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

But the premier is also under criminal indictment for allegedly seeking to illicitly influence media coverage in Israel, and several news organizations established during his time as premier have been seen as closely aligned to his Likud party, and in some cases even mouthpieces of the party.

Netanyahu dismissed the corruption cases against him and painted himself as a victim of persecution. “People are not saying ‘What did Netanyahu do?’ Because he probably did nothing. ‘What was done to him?’ is something that people ask,” he claimed.

Netanyahu has often asserted, without evidence, that the corruption cases are the result of a witch hunt by political rivals and various aligned civil servants.

He went on to speculate that Russia and Ukraine are not yet ready for peace talks, but he said he was prepared to broker such negotiations if asked.

On the rapid development of artificial intelligence, Netanyahu speculated that “it will annihilate many more jobs than it will create and will force a structural change to our economics, to economic models and to our politics.”

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