JERUSALEM — Hinting at a new strategy as he starts his fourth term with a more conservative coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel told the European Union’s foreign policy chief that he wants to negotiate with the Palestinians over which settlements in the occupied West Bank would be annexed by Israel, officials said Tuesday.
Palestinian leaders quickly rejected the idea as a ploy to fend off mounting criticism of Israel and potential sanctions against it by Europe, saying that any new talks must tackle all issues on the table.
Mr. Netanyahu may be seeking to legitimize construction in settlements widely seen as violations of international law before negotiations even begin. But he could be signaling a new willingness to distinguish between the so-called settlement blocs that many international experts expect to remain in place and the far-flung communities they see as making a Palestinian state impossible — and, potentially, to freeze construction outside the blocs.
“The goal is to prove to the world that we’re serious about peace even if the Palestinians are not with us at the table,” said Michael B. Oren, Mr. Netanyahu’s former ambassador to Washington and now a member of Parliament and the governing coalition. “We should regain the legitimacy of building in these areas and say, ‘We’re not going to build in other areas.’”
Multimedia Feature | Netanyahu and the Settlements The Israeli leader’s settlement policy resembles his predecessors’, but it is a march toward permanence at a time when prospects for peace are few.
Two Israeli officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity under diplomatic protocol, confirmed that Mr. Netanyahu made the proposal — first reported Tuesday in the Israeli daily Haaretz — in his meeting last week with Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs. Mark Regev, Mr. Netanyahu’s spokesman, declined to confirm or deny it, or discuss its significance, as did David Kriss, a spokesman for the E.U.’s delegation to Israel.
The report in Haaretz, a leftist news organization highly critical of Mr. Netanyahu, was based on an anonymous Israeli official, who quoted the prime minister as telling Ms. Mogherini: “It’s clear there are areas that will remain under Israeli control under any agreement, just as it’s clear there are areas that will remain under Palestinian control under any agreement. Therefore, we can advance toward understandings on which areas we can continue building in.”
Under withering criticism from Washington and Europe for every settlement construction project he undertakes, Mr. Netanyahu has often argued that these initiatives would not materially affect the map for a potential two-state solution to the long-running conflict. But he has dismissed American and European demands for a halt to construction outside the large, urban blocs of settlements closest to Israel, as well as growing calls within Israel to define its future borders by shoring up some settlements and abandoning others.
“He has a very right-wing coalition, and for him to come up with even this idea, starting negotiations on the settlements, it’s a major change,” said Eytan Gilboa, a professor at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “The reason is the E.U. threat to impose certain restrictions or even sanctions against Israel if there is no peace process. It’s a good sign that the government understands now the threats and perhaps is ready to do something.”
Moav Vardi, the diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10, said Mr. Netanyahu gave Ms. Mogherini “the ability to go to Brussels and say that ‘there is something to talk about, settlement blocs can be debated, it is possible to start rolling the ball called a diplomatic process.’” But Mr. Vardi, like many Israeli analysts, said it would clearly be a “nonstarter” with the Palestinians.
Indeed, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, denounced the proposal as “a request to continue illegal settlement construction with Palestinian consent.” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, called it “a disingenuous and manipulative exercise of political and legal deception,” saying that any effort “to legalize the settlement blocs is a blatant attempt to steal more Palestinian land.”
The Palestinian leadership has accepted the concept of some settlements’ becoming part of Israel, in exchange for comparable stretches of land from inside Israel’s 1948 borders, to be part of a future Palestine.
But President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has said he will re-enter negotiations only if they are based on the pre-1967 lines demarcating Israel, before any settlements were built, and are accompanied by a freeze of settlement construction and Israel’s release of long-serving Palestinian prisoners — conditions Mr. Netanyahu will not abide.
Several Israeli analysts, therefore, saw Mr. Netanyahu’s proposal as a cynical tactic, aimed at appeasing the European yearning for negotiations, making the Palestinians seem like the cause of the stalemate, and reducing backlash for building within the blocs.
“It’s very easy for him to suggest it knowing that nothing will happen,” said Shlomo Brom, who heads the Israeli-Palestinian relations program at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. “He was always willing to talk with the Palestinians about different partial agreements. But they are not willing, because they think that is an Israeli strategy aimed at undermining the permanent-status agreement without making the concessions that are needed, and I am not sure they are wrong.”
Gilead Sher, whose Blue White Future group advocates a delineation of the blocs alongside evacuation of far-flung settlements, said it was impossible to address one without the other — and without addressing land swaps of Israeli territory to the Palestinians, things that could collapse Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition. Therefore Mr. Sher, a fierce critic of the prime minister, called the proposal “a very blunt and transparent and obvious political move.”
“He says: ‘Get off my back, you Europeans, you Americans, whatever. I’m ready to negotiate so give me a break,’” Mr. Sher said. “‘Here is a kind of token that I’m giving you.’”
Ms. Mogherini, according to the Israeli official quoted in the original Haaretz article, told Mr. Netanyahu: “I’m interested in also seeing steps on the ground that will back up your declarations and show commitment to a solution of two states for two peoples.”
A few days later, while attending the Gulf Cooperation Council summit meeting in Doha, Qatar, Ms. Mogherini called for “a new international framework” to “relaunch the peace process and to, hopefully, lead it to some concrete result.”
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(via NY Times)