Push to annex settlements polarises Israelis

A growing number of right-wing politicians are calling to annex settlements after negotiations with Palestinians failed.

    Push to annex settlements polarises Israelis
    Centre-left Yesh Atid Party said they would withdraw from government if "even a single settlement" is annexed [AP]

    Herzliya, Israel - The dysfunction within the Israeli government was summed up in two speeches here on Sunday night: One Israeli minister threatened to blow up the ruling coalition, and another happily offered him the dynamite.

    The warning came from Yair Lapid, the chairman of Yesh Atid, the centre-left party that holds the second-largest number of seats in the Knesset. Since talks with the Palestinians stalled in April, a growing number of right-wing politicians are pushing to annex the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

    Lapid called this a "delusional idea" promoted by "extreme right-wing forces," and warned that it would drive Israel to political crisis.

    "If there is an attempt to annex even a single settlement unilaterally, Yesh Atid will not only withdraw from the government, it will bring it down," he said at the Herzliya Conference, a high-profile annual gathering of diplomatic and security figures.

    He was followed on stage by Naftali Bennett, the head of the ultranationalist Jewish Home party, who announced that he would ask the cabinet to annex not one but dozens of settlements. Supporters handed out glossy brochures touting his "sovereignty plan," which calls for gradually declaring sovereignty over most of the West Bank.

    "We've reached a dead end," he said, referring to the 1993 Oslo Accords, which called for the creation of a Palestinian state. "It's time we decide how we want to move forward as a nation."

    The irony is that, with two of his top ministers taking such polarised positions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely respond by doing nothing. Indeed, the number-two man in his Likud party gave a speech in defence of the status quo on Sunday night, suggesting that all the talk about unilateral moves may be just that - talk.

    "Lapid has proven pretty naive on the strategic issues so far," said Yossi Alpher, a former adviser to ex-Prime Minister Ehud Barak. "This is rocking the coalition boat and scoring points… I don't see this coalition under such heavy pressure or stress that it's about to fall apart."

    RELATED: New Israeli settlement expansion condemned

    Negotiations with the Palestinians ended on April 29 after Israel refused to honour the fourth and final round of an agreed-upon prisoner release. They are unlikely to resume in the coming months: Hamas and Fatah last week agreed to end their seven-year split by forming a consensus government, with which Netanyahu has forbidden almost all contact.

    Beyond that, though, the Israeli response has been largely rhetorical, despite the promise of tough sanctions. The finance ministry has not withheld the tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, for example, a move that would leave Ramallah unable to pay salaries.

    [Netanyahu] has no incentive whatsoever to make life miserable for Palestinians by withholding [taxes], or by stopping security cooperation, because any measure like this very quickly reverberates inside Israel as well.

    - Yossi Alpher , former adviser to ex-Prime Minister Ehud Barak

    The cabinet did announce plans for 3,300 new homes for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, and revoked the VIP cards which allow Palestinian ministers easier travel, but nothing more.

    Instead Netanyahu spent the past week issuing a series of angry statements, several of which excoriated Washington and Brussels for their decision to work with the new Palestinian government. A columnist in Ma'ariv called his response "rejectionist and sour"; the prime minister "never misses an opportunity to whine," another wrote in Ha'aretz.

    "I think it's pretty clear that Netanyahu fears going too far," Alpher said. "He has no incentive whatsoever to make life miserable for Palestinians by withholding [taxes], or by stopping security cooperation, because any measure like this very quickly reverberates inside Israel as well."

    So the focus has turned to "unilateral actions," not in itself a new idea. Every few months, a right-wing politician floats the idea of annexing the West Bank; on the left, Ariel Sharon's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza is often cited as a precedent for further evacuations.

    But the talk has intensified over the past few weeks. Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, called for a "Plan B" that would see Israel draw its own borders; Danny Dayan, the former head of an influential settler group, is promoting his own solution.

    Lapid's high-profile foray into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a rare one: He made it a campaign issue, but has largely focused on socioeconomic issues since taking office. He argued on Sunday that Netanyahu should present a map outlining Israel's future borders, and proposed a three-stage plan which calls for evacuating isolated settlements. "We can change history, but not geography. The territory is not going to change," he said. "There is no reason to continue to avoid having to draw the future borders of the state of Israel."

    Tzipi Livni, the justice minister and the chief negotiator with the Palestinians, joined him in criticising the settlements as an "economic and security burden."

    VIDEO: Al Jazeera World: Area C

    Bennett's proposal, on the other hand, calls for Netanyahu to immediately annex Gush Etzion, a large bloc of settlements located south of Jerusalem. Israel would then slowly annex the rest of "Area C," the 61 percent of the West Bank already under full Israeli control, and grant citizenship to the 300,000 Palestinians living there.

    The rest of the land, which houses about 90 percent of the population, would not receive sovereignty as a Palestinian state, but rather "upgraded autonomy."

    "This does not realize the utopian dream that was launched [with Oslo]," Bennett said, "but it's time to think creatively how to build a better reality here."

    The final decision, of course, falls to Netanyahu, who did not comment on Sunday's speeches.

    His aides were quick to trash Lapid's plan, though, saying that there would be no unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. And the number-two man in his Likud party, Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar, argued that the best plan was to do nothing.

    "The conflict will not be solved in the near future," Sa'ar said. "The status quo is a better alternative, under these circumstances."

    Perhaps the clearest sign about the status quo came from Isaac Herzog, the head of the Labour party and the leader of the opposition. He hinted on Sunday that Netanyahu is unlikely to pursue any unilateral moves, and - with a hint of exasperation - urged Lapid and Livni to leave the coalition now.

    "If you truly want to talk about peace, don't show us theoretical programmes packaged in cellophane," Herzog said. "Get up, leave the government. It's not too late. And together we will build a coalition that will lead Israel to peace."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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