Smotrich, several Likud members call for 'peace for peace'

Ben Gvir: Far-right will bolt coalition if Saudi deal sees Palestinian concessions

Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism will not countenance any such moves, he warns, after Netanyahu’s UN speech; Lapid slams PM for ignoring Saudi nuclear demands, judicial overhaul

Far-right leaders Itamar Ben Gvir (2-R) and Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Far-right leaders Itamar Ben Gvir (2-R) and Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition partners hailed his speech Friday to the UN General Assembly in which he said Israel is on the verge of normalizing ties with Saudi Arabia, while insisting they would not support Israeli concessions widely understood to be a critical component of the deal. Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the far-right Oztma Yehedit party said his and a second far-right party would quit the coalition if such concessions were made.

The responses highlighted the lack of wiggle room Netanyahu has to negotiate, even as both the US and Saudi Arabia have made clear that he will need to offer something significant to advance a two-state solution in order to get the deal across the finish line.

“If there will be concessions for the Palestinians, we will not remain in the government — and not just us, but the Religious Zionism party as well. Netanyahu can only make this deal with [Benny] Gantz,” National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who heads the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, said in a statement, referring to the opposition National Unity faction chairman who has already ruled out the possibility of joining Netanyahu’s government to ensure a Saudi normalization deal.

Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism hold 14 Knesset seats together, and without them, Netanyahu’s coalition would lose its majority.

“Otzma Yehudit supports normalization — on this Netanyahu has our full support. But we will not accept any concessions to the Palestinians. I told the prime minister not to put us in a corner,” Ben Gvir said.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, leader of Religious Zionism, praised Netanyahu’s performance at the UN but subtly indicated what he’d be willing to give in exchange for normalization with Arabia. “Together, with God’s help, we will bring peace for peace. We will continue to maintain Israel’s security, settle in all of its regions, developing along with all of the Middle East and the entire world,” he wrote on X.

Smotrich, who has spearheaded the government’s record-setting rate of approvals for settlement home construction, already said last month that he would not countenance any concessions for the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a map of the ‘New Middle East’ as he addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.(Bryan R. Smith / AFP)

The term “peace for peace” was used by Netanyahu to describe the 2020 Abraham Accords, which turned the prevailing logic on its head by seeing Israel normalize ties with additional Arab countries before it reached a peace deal with the Palestinians.

But contrary to Netanyahu’s framing that Israel did not give up anything in exchange for normalization in 2020, he did agree to shelve plans to annex large parts of the West Bank as part of the UAE deal.

Several other coalition lawmakers used the same “peace for peace” phrase in their praise of Netanyahu’s speech on Friday, including Justice Minister Yariv Levin of Likud.

“We are advancing peace for peace. We are actualizing the vision of peace between Israel and the Arab world,” Levin wrote on Facebook.

Likud Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi said: “A powerful speech by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Together with him, we will advance peace with strength, based on truth. A new Middle East of peace for peace.”

A Saudi diplomat listens to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2023. (UN screenshot)

Likud MK Danny Danon, a former envoy to the UN, appeared to be the only coalition lawmaker willing to acknowledge that a deal with Saudi Arabia will require Israeli gestures to the Palestinians.

However, Danon insisted in a Kan public broadcaster interview that they would be merely economic measures. “The Saudi issue should not be conditioned on the Palestinian issue,” he said.

Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan was also pressed during a Kan interview on how the current hardline government will be able to make concessions to the Palestinians.

Erdan recalled that in 2020 Netanyahu agreed to delay his annexation plans in the West Bank until 2024 in exchange for normalization with the UAE.

“All the more so [is the same kind of concession] possible when talking about a peace deal that ends the Arab-Israeli conflict, except for the Palestinians. [This] will isolate the Palestinians and leave them alone by themselves. Under these circumstances, I’m confident that the ministers of the government will know how to make the right consideration,” Erdan said.

National Unity MK Orit Farkash Hacohen told Kan that her center-right opposition party would be willing to support a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia from outside the government but reiterated that the faction would not be willing to join the coalition.

Israeli-led protesters rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside UN Headquarters in New York City, September 22, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

This may prove insufficient though, if Ben Gvir and Smotrich move to bring down the government to prevent Netanyahu from making concessions to the Palestinians.

Farkash-Hacohen also urged Netanyahu to allow the security establishment to brief lawmakers on the ramifications of the deal because there is growing concern in Israel over Saudi Arabia’s demands for a civilian nuclear program and access to advanced weaponry — things that Jerusalem has long opposed due to fears of losing its military edge in the region and of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid slammed Netanyahu for skipping over Saudi Arabia’s demand for a civilian nuclear program in his UN speech hailing the potential normalization agreement.

Lapid also said Netanyahu ignored the US demand to stop his government’s judicial overhaul and “the fact that the State of Israel is being torn apart because of his government.”

“He does not even try to heal the rifts and unite the people. Sad,” Lapid tweeted.

President Isaac Herzog, who has sought to broker a compromise on the judicial shakeup, avoided touching on the issue in his response to Netanyahu’s speech.

“The vision of regional peace — with Saudi Arabia at its center — is the historic alternative to the Iranian terror threat to the Middle East… This is an important message from the prime minister’s UNGA speech and I welcome it,” Herzog said.

Prime Minister of the State of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the United Nations General Assembly on September 22, 2023 in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images via AFP)

Addressing the Palestinian issue in his speech, Netanyahu said, “The Palestinians could greatly benefit from a broader peace. They should be part of the process, but they should not have a veto over the process.”

“And I also believe that making peace with more Arab states would actually increase the prospects of making peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” he added.

In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that “every day we get closer” to Saudi Arabia normalizing ties with Israel while clarifying that the Palestinian issue is still a “very important” component of the process.

“We hope it will reach a place that it will ease the life of the Palestinians, and get Israel as a player in the Middle East,” bin Salman added, notably expressing his desire to improve Palestinian livelihoods, rather than secure the Palestinians a state of their own.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 22, 2023, at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Palestinian statehood has long been a formal goal of Saudi Arabia, which introduced the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, offering Israel normalized relations with the entire Arab world only after it negotiated a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority has sought to engage with Saudi Arabia regarding the latter’s effort to normalize ties with Israel, despite Riyadh’s possible abandonment of the API formula for peace with the Jewish state.

Rather than boycotting the process altogether, as it did during the Abraham Accords, Ramallah hopes that it will be able to receive more significant concessions from the parties involved if it is part of the process.

The PA has also lowered its demand from one of statehood-or-nothing, instead asking for intermediate steps such as US backing for recognition of Palestine as a full member state at the United Nations, the US reopening its consulate in Jerusalem that historically served Palestinians, the scrapping of congressional legislation characterizing the PLO as a terror organization, the Israeli transfer of West Bank territory to Palestinian control, the razing of illegal outposts in the West Bank, according to officials familiar with the matter.

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