In the final weeks before President Barack Obama leaves office, the United States has delivered a two-pronged diplomatic broadside against Israeli settlement building.
First, the United States acquiesced to a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Israel to halt settlement activity. Days later, Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a speech blaming Israeli settlements for obstructing progress toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“No one thinking seriously about peace can ignore the reality of what the settlements pose to that peace,” Kerry said in his hour-long address. “The vote in the United Nations was about preserving the two-state solution. That’s what we were standing up for.”
But rather than back down, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett wants to reinforce the country’s commitment to settlements by taking what many regard as a radical step: unilaterally annexing the 60 percent of the West Bank where Israeli settlements are mostly clustered.
The leader of the Jewish Home party, Bennett heads up the right flank of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s government, which Kerry called the most right wing in Israel’s history.
Bennett’s vision is for a Palestinian state in Gaza, with ramped-up autonomy for Palestinians in the West Bank and full Israeli rule in areas where Jewish settlements are located – territory designated Area C under the Oslo Accords.
Such a move has long been considered a fringe position. But now, with a more sympathetic U.S. administration set to take charge, Bennett’s plan is getting renewed attention.
The Washington Post sat down with Bennett in his office in Israel’s parliament on Jan. 1. Using the terms Judea and Samaria to refer to the West Bank, he described how he sees the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.
Question: How did you interpret the United Nations Security Council resolution and Kerry’s speech?
Answer: The U.N. resolution will have a tangible impact in the sense that now no Palestinian leader will feel they can accept or demand less than the June 4, 1967, lines [the border that defined Israel upon its creation in 1948].
The irony here is that this resolution has put the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to bed, perhaps forever.
We must remind readers that the June 4, 1967, lines do not include the Western Wall, and there is no reasonable Israeli who will accept that. Nearly 100 percent of Israeli Jews oppose the terms of that resolution, so in a sense it is a self-defeating resolution.
Q: Israel does not appear to have friends on the Security Council that advocate the positions your government has taken. Does that give you pause?
A: Israel has been unclear for many years on what its vision is. On the one hand, prime ministers from left and right talk about founding a Palestinian state in the heart of our land; on the other hand, the policies do not support that vision. I think that is what is frustrating the world.
What I advocate is that Israel’s words and deeds support each other.
Q: What is your plan?
A: My vision is very clear and coherent, the words and deeds must support each other.
A Palestinian state in Gaza. This already exists, they have an effective government, recognized borders and a military.
Autonomy in Palestinian Authority areas. It is less than a state, but it has a huge degree of self-governance.
Applying Israeli law on Area C. There are 500,000 Israelis living there and between 70,000 to 100,000 Palestinians. [The Palestinians] would be able to vote for the Knesset and they would represent a 1 percent addition to Israel’s population, which is negligible.
A Marshall Plan.
Q: How would a “Marshall Plan” work in the West Bank?
A: A land port in Jenin, allowing the Palestinian Authority to import goods through a designated terminal in Haifa, without going through Israel. A free tourist zone, where Christian tourists could go to Haifa, Nazareth, Nablus, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron and Tel Aviv without any security checks. Full freedom of movement for all Palestinians within Judea and Samaria. Massive commercial centers on the Green Line that could leverage the Palestinian and Israeli workforces.
I call it “the imperfect plan.” It’s imperfect because it’s not exactly what they want and not exactly what we want. It does not solve all the problems but allows us to drastically raise the quality of life for everyone in the region.
Q: Doesn’t your plan violate international law?
A: It does not violate international law because that would suggest that we occupy a state. We don’t. There was never a Palestinian state. The British conquered the land from the Turks, the Jordanians illegally conquered the West Bank from the British, and then we released it.
It is our homeland. Everyone is wishing the Jews a happy Hanukkah this week. Well, all the events from Hanukkah happened there. To come and say this is somehow occupied land does not make sense from a historical perspective and from a legal perspective. This is not one sovereign state occupying another sovereign state. According to international law, this is disputed area, and we are the ones who have the claim to it.
Q: Do you think there is a chance the Israeli government will embrace your plan?
A: I think, looking at the alternatives, this is the only plan. Everyone who talks about a Palestinian state knows it will not happen. The Palestinians have already been offered everything and said “no.” For 23 years, we have been trying the same thing, and every time we are surprised when we get a new round of violence.
We need a new approach.
The Muslim and Arab world has profoundly changed, the notion of a nation state in the Arab world is disintegrating. The attempt to implement a Western vehicle called a nation state in a tribal and religious region does not work. Clans are stronger than the lines drawn by diplomats 100 years ago in the Sykes-Picot agreement.
The idea that we would take the calmest and quietest country in this crazy region and inject another failed state is ridiculous to any reasonable person.
Q: Do you think the incoming U.S. administration will support your vision?
A: I think the main focus should be on what Netanyahu will ask for. I think we are seeing an openness to fresh ideas from the incoming administration. Trump’s record shows that he is a bold and creative person, and he has made bold and creative moves to succeed. I think it’s time for creativity in the Middle East. I hope he embraces this plan.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Griff Witte, Ruth Eglash