Settlers in Palestine — a Netanyahu gambit backfires

The PM may have thought he’d benefit by exposing the intransigent Palestinian insistence on a Judenrein Palestine. But his own right wing got angrier, louder and faster

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, visits a West Bank settlement outpost in 2007 (Photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, visits a West Bank settlement outpost in 2007 (Photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)

It must have seemed a good idea at the time.

Asked by The Times of Israel on Sunday to clarify what exactly the prime minister had meant in Davos, on Friday, when he said he wouldn’t remove a single settlement or displace a single settler, the Prime Minister’s Office provided explicit elaboration.

No, Benjamin Netanyahu had not only been talking about settlements in the Jordan Valley, as some reports had suggested. And no, the prime minister was not only speaking about an interim period ahead of a permanent accord. Rather, the official told The Times of Israel, Netanyahu would henceforth be insisting that all settlers be given the free choice of remaining in place and living under Palestinian rule after a peace deal, or relocating voluntarily to areas under Israeli sovereign rule. “Just as Israel has an Arab minority, the prime minister doesn’t see why Palestine can’t have a Jewish minority,” we were told. “The Jews living on their side should have a choice whether they want to stay or not.”

The official who spoke to us claimed that this position represented Netanyahu’s “longstanding” stance. If so, it had never been expressed so explicitly — as is clear from the diplomatic storm our article has provoked.

It may be that Netanyahu was floating a trial balloon, to see how the international community, and the settlers, would react. In which case, the results thus far cannot have been too pleasing for the prime minister. More likely, it was a gambit to embarrass the Palestinians, whom Netanyahu could rightly have predicted would furiously reject the idea. The problem is that this predictable Palestinian reaction has been drowned out by the speed and intensity of the rejection by his own right-wing allies/rivals.

Leading the avalanche of right-wing criticism has been the Jewish Home party leader and economics minister, Naftali Bennett, who dismissed the notion of creating settler-Palestinians with a Facebook post on Sunday evening that can be summarized by the single word “Never.”

Behind the scenes in the last few hours, members of Bennett’s circle have assailed Netanyahu for selling the settlers out to the Palestinians. Members of the prime minister’s camp have retorted that, by attacking Netanyahu for floating an idea the Palestinians were sure to reject, Bennett was hurting the shared cause of settlement. Well, the Bennett camp has countered, it might be smart to tell us in advance the next time you’re unleashing a brilliant plan to expose Palestinian intransigence. After all, Netanyahu and Bennett spent six full hours together on Sunday. Did this cunning new plan slip his mind?

Also wading in from the right have been members of Netanyahu’s own Likud party — including not only perennial hawks such as Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, but also Netanyahu’s own protegé and former aide MK Ofer Akunis, who called the idea “delusional.”

Netanyahu has actually privately presented the idea of settlers and settlements staying put under Palestinian rule to US Secretary of State John Kerry, as senior Palestinian sources confirmed to The Times of Israel Monday, and some sources suggest Kerry has raised it with the Palestinians.

By leaking it now, the prime minister must have believed he could easily draw angry Palestinians responses: the PA would reject the idea of any Israeli presence in their state, and he could decry their ostensible anti-Semitism. Moreover, he may have hoped, the Israeli right would celebrate him for his refusal to uproot Jewish communities; quite the contrast to Ariel Sharon and the demolition of the entire Gaza settlement enterprise in 2005. His aides might even have contemplated linking Palestinian intransigence on the issue to the calendar: Here’s Mahmoud Abbas insisting on a Judenrein Palestine, just in time for International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

None of this has panned out. The idea of a Jewish minority in “Palestine” was shot down so quickly by Bennett and his fellow warriors against Palestinian statehood that the Palestinian brush-off will hardly have registered with the international community. The US and the EU have so far kept quiet on the issue. And the Palestinians have smoothed out their initial indignation. Sunday night’s angry vow by chief negotiator Saeb Erekat that “not one” settler could stay in Palestine, quickly attacked by the PMO, had given way by Monday morning to PLO official Hanan Ahrawi’s far more palatable position that Jews could be welcome, it’s only “ex-territorial” settlers retaining Israeli citizenship who are a no-go.

It’s possible that Netanyahu’s idea of offering settlers the chance to stay represents his acceptance of the inevitable division of the land, his willingness to preside over that process, but his refusal to follow Sharon and forcibly remove Jews from Biblical Israel: He can live with the gradual establishment of a Palestinian state and thus enter the history books as the leader who ended the conflict. But kicking Jews out of their houses? Not on his watch. Let them stay, if they want. If they need to be withdrawn, let someone else do the dirty work.

It’s also possible that his Davos comments — “I do not intend to remove a single settlement, [and] I do not intend to displace a single Israeli” — were deemed so inflexible by the Americans that he had to give some ostensible ground toward realizing a two-state solution: No, he won’t uproot settlements, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a two-state deal.

Again, though, if the idea was to sound flexible, the result has been the reverse.

Thus Netanyahu is not merely back where he started — widely perceived internationally as the key player blocking peace process — but even further in the mire, seen as seeking to place yet another obstacle in the path to Palestinian statehood. And with both the settlers and the Palestinians more angry and mistrustful of him than before.

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