Rift between prime minister, right flank grows over settler statement

Those who disagree with Netanyahu’s plan for settlers to stay in West Bank under Palestinian rule can leave the government, official says

Then Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 22, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Then Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 22, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A war of words over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly stated intention to allow settlers to remain in the West Bank under Palestinian rule escalated on Monday, with an official at the Prime Minister’s Office saying members of the government who disagree with the prime minister are free to leave at any time.

The unnamed official told Israel Radio that Likud MKs who spoke out against the plan — Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely and Deputy Minister Ofir Akunis — were welcome to step down from their positions if they chose.

The statement came a day after several right-wing politicians pushed back against Netanyahu’s policy, first reported in The Times of Israel, to insist that settlers in areas on the Palestinian side of a future two-state border be given the option to remain in their homes under Palestinian rule.

The official said that Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, who also spoke out harshly against Netanyahu’s plan, could also quit the government if he disagreed with the prime minister’s policies.

A PMO official quoted in Israeli media said Bennett, who heads the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party, was behaving in a “nationally irresponsible” manner for the sake of making headlines, and hindering the prime minister’s effort “to reveal the true face of the Palestinian Authority” as an unwilling peace partner.

An official in the PMO told The Times of Israel on Sunday that Netanyahu does not intend to uproot Jewish settlements anywhere in the West Bank as part of a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians, and plans to allow settlers the choice of remaining under Palestinian rule.

This elicited a flurry of criticism from right-wing politicians, including Bennett and many members of the prime minister’s own Likud party.

Bennett issued a call on Sunday night to Netanyahu to abandon the idea, and said the prime minister’s position suggested “ethical insanity.”

“Never,” Bennett posted on his Facebook page. “We did not return to the land of Israel after 2,000 years of longing in order to live under the government of Mahmoud Abbas. Whoever advocates for the idea of Jewish life in Israel under Palestinian rule is undermining our ability to sit in Tel Aviv.”

Elkin said Monday that Netanyahu had crossed a line by making such a suggestion, even if it was for rhetorical purposes.

“There are things that contravene the Zionist ethos, and it is forbidden to say them, even for the purpose of exposing the Palestinian’s obstinacy. Hundreds of thousands of [Israeli] civilians would remain under the rule of those who carried out the lynchings in Ramallah,” he told Army Radio.

Danon shared similar sentiments. “I would not wish for my enemies to live under Palestinian sovereignty,” he said in a statement. “Where there is no military presence and authority, there will be no security for any Jew. We will not abandon settlers behind enemy lines.”

Meanwhile Akunis called the proposal “zany” and Hotovely said such an idea would never be backed by Likud.

The Palestinian Authority has consistently rejected the idea as well, and its top negotiator in the current round of peace talks reiterated this stance Sunday night.

“Anyone who says he wants to keep the settlers in a Palestinian state is really saying he does not want a Palestinian state,” Erekat declared. “No settler will be permitted to stay in a Palestinian state, not one, because the settlements are illegal and the presence of settlers on occupied lands is illegal.”

A source in the PMO rebuked the Palestinian Authority for Erekat’s statement.

“Nothing reveals more the Palestinian Authority’s unwillingness to reach an agreement with the State of Israel than its radical and reckless reaction to an official report,” the PMO source said late Sunday. “An agreement will only be reached when the Palestinians recognize the Jewish state and only when Israel’s vital security needs are guaranteed.”

Raphael Ahren, Marissa Newman and AP contributed to this report.

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