Netanyahu: I was wrong to warn of Arabs voting in droves on election day

PM: Unilateral W. Bank pullout ‘possible, I suppose’ if security conditions met

At leftist US think tank, PM says Jerusalem must remain under Israeli sovereignty; Israel to maintain security control over areas ceded in any deal

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participates in a conversation at the Center for American Progress with CAP president Neera Tanden November 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participates in a conversation at the Center for American Progress with CAP president Neera Tanden November 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday vaguely hinted at the possibility of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank in the future, if certain conditions were met.

Speaking at a left-leaning think tank, he initially dismissed the idea of an Israeli unilateral withdrawal in the absence of a two-state deal with the Palestinians to prevent Israel from becoming a bi-national state, citing security concerns. But later on, he said such a demarche was “possible” if it had the international community’s backing and fully satisfied Israel’s security concerns.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Center for American Progress’s President and CEO Neera Tanden, the prime minister struck a somewhat pessimistic note, arguing that the Palestinians are currently unwilling to make peace with Israel. It could be, he added, that regional Arab countries might pressure them into an agreement. He also suggested that the complex issue of Jerusalem is unsolvable and that the city would have to remain under Israeli sovereignty.

Netanyahu admitted that it had been “wrong” for him to warn, on Election Day, of Arabs coming out “in droves” to the ballot boxes. He added that he believes that more Arabs voted for his Likud party than for the opposition Labor-led Zionist Union.

Netanyahu reiterated his demands for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the Jewish state and for a n Israeli “long-term security presence” in the West Bank. While this is the “right formula” for a peace deal, it is unlikely to happen in the immediate future, he said.

“Can it happen? I don’t think the Palestinians will accept it by themselves, but because of change happening in the region — there’s a huge change happening in the region — it might be that leading Arab countries might encourage a future Palestinian leadership, or even this one, to accept that kind of deal. If that happened, I think Israelis would go for it.”

Later on, during a question and answer session, David Makovsky, the director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, asked Netanyahu how he intends to prevent Israel from becoming a bi-national in the absence of a negotiated solution.

“Unilateralism works less well than a negotiated solution,” the prime minister responded. “In any case, the main problem that we have is (need for) the acceptance of the principle that Israel will take care of security in the areas west of the Jordan.”

The trouble with the 2005 Gaza Disengagement was that Israel did not only withdraw all settlers but also that it left no security forces there, Netanyahu added. As a result, the coastal enclave has become a launching pad for rockets threatening all of Israel, he said.

“Unless you have an Israeli capability to actually prevent the use of territories that we hand over in a civilian sense, that we can patrol it from a security point of view — that’s where you get into trouble.”

In addition to the rockets, Israel is now facing terror tunnels, which further complicates a potential withdrawal of IDF troops from the West Bank, Netanyahu said. “Any delineation of a border would be hundreds of kilometers, so you’d have thousands of tunnels, and these are terror tunnels from which terrorists can emerge and take people hostage or kill them or squirrel them back.”

“The only way you deal with that, is to assure that from a security point of view, Israel has [control], for the foreseeable future, until you can prove otherwise, that somebody else can responsibly take that territory, Israel has the security control. I don’t see the Palestinians agreeing to that,” Netanyahu said.

“Just about any Israeli in his right mind agrees with what I’m about to tell you: Any deal or any arrangement, unilateral or negotiated, must have Israel maintain the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat, including from territories that are ceded. That’s the most important provision. That’s something I don’t see Palestinians accepting now.”

Later on during the event, Netanyahu said there were three ways to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a political solution, security, and prosperity. Since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to negotiate, a political solution is currently out of reach, he said. But in the mean time, Netanyahu vowed to work on the other issues. For instance, he said he is taking steps to improve economic development in the Palestinian territories.

“Unilateralism… I supposed that’s possible too, but it would have to meet Israeli security criteria and that would also require broader international understanding than exists,” he concluded.

Responding to a different question from the audience, Netanyahu addressed some of the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, indicating that he sees no solution for Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital. “There’s a question of Jerusalem and specifically the Temple Mount. I think it’s insoluble,” Netanyahu said. “I just don’t see right now a solution for that. And I think it has to remain under Israeli sovereignty and that’s the only way to prevent this from exploding into sectarian strife.”

Earlier during the event, Tanden, the head of the think tank hosting Netanyahu, confronted him with his controversial comment, made ahead of the March 17 elections, when he warned of Arab citizens “coming out in droves” to vote.

“I think that this statement, as it was said, was wrong,” the prime minister admitted. “First of all, you should know that Arabs voted for me, and I welcome that.” Arab Israelis voted for his Likud party “in a considerably larger number than for the Labor party,” he added.

No other prime minister has invested so much into the Arab sector, Netanyahu added. “It comes also from a political philosophy that I follow, especially the teachings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who believed in having an egalitarian state. He said, ‘There, in a Jewish state, will flourish the son of Arabia, the son of Nazareth, and my own son.’”

Netanyahu’s appearance at the left-leaning CAP was hotly debated within the organization, with some members arguing that a progressive think tank should not host right-wingers. Netanyahu said he was aware his visit caused controversy, “so I doubly appreciate the invitation.”

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