US, Palestinians slam minister’s call for partial West Bank annexation

Asked about Uri Ariel’s plans for Area C, State Department spokesman urges avoidance of ‘inflammatory rhetoric’

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

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel seen in Jerusalem Old City on March 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel seen in Jerusalem Old City on March 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

American and Palestinian officials on Wednesday denounced comments made by Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, who earlier this week urged Israel to annex Area C of the West Bank and who was incorrectly quoted calling for the removal thousands of Palestinians who live in that area.

A spokesperson for Uriel has since clarified that while the Jewish Home party minister did call for the annexation of Area C — some 60 percent of the West Bank — he did not call for the removal of Palestinians from there, and that his comment to this effect was mistranslated. (The Times of Israel has corrected its original article to reflect this.)

During the daily press briefing on Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner was asked about Ariel’s remarks, made in an interview with The Times of Israel during his trip this week to Moscow.

“I’m going to resist the temptation to respond to every comment from Israeli officials, but for a member of the Israeli cabinet to say what Minister Ariel said is concerning,” Toner said. “We continue to look to steps, rhetoric, comments, actions that we believe will set the conditions for a peace process to take hold and to avoid inflammatory and provocative rhetoric.”

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry issued a statement [Arabic] demanding the United Nations Security Council deal seriously with the call to annex Area C, which it said undermined the chances of a two-state solution and spoiled international efforts to revive serious and meaningful peace process.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry statement also denounced the “extremist” Israeli government for its alleged plans to expand Israeli settlements and for its increased calls for annexation of West Bank territory.

On Thursday, a spokesperson for Ariel clarified that the minister was misquoted on the issue of Palestinians in Area C: Rather than saying that he wants to remove a few thousand Arabs from Area C, he said that only a few thousand Arabs live there, and their numbers are not high enough to prevent an Israeli annexation of the area.

“We have to aspire to the annexation of Area C. These are areas where there are no Arabs at all, except a few thousand who don’t constitute a significant numerical factor,” Ariel said.

Ariel also said the Israeli right is unconcerned over recent peace overtures by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since they will eventually come to nothing. Nonetheless, Ariel, who opposes Palestinian statehood, carped that by invoking a desire for a two-state solution, Netanyahu is fueling the notion held by many Israelis that the creation of a Palestinian state is inevitable.

Ariel further said that he had not discussed the peace process or related topics during recent talks he had with Netanyahu. He flew with the prime minister on this trip to Moscow this week — where he signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in agriculture, the dairy industry and advanced dairy technology with his Russian counterpart, Alexander Tkachev.

Ariel is the head of the far-right Tekumah faction in the Jewish Home party. He said he agrees with party leader Naftali Bennett, who has threatened to bolt the coalition should the government make territorial concessions.

Stuart Weiner and Dov Lieber contributed to this report.

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