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Netanyahu's remark on not evacuating of any of the settlements causes uproar

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While at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met on Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 three times with United States Secretary of State John Kerry where they discussed the peace talks and a framework agreement. Netanyahu apparently told Kerry and then told it to the press; "I have no intention of evacuating any settlement or uprooting any Israelis." The remark had a more interesting back story to it that played out in the Israel media over the weekend, where an official from Netanyahu's office elaborated, saying; "there is no reason for the Palestinian state to be mono-ethnic." This prompted a resounding negative response from the Palestinians and a tirade from Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, who declared "never" and that it "is a very grave matter, and it reflects a panicked loss of values." This lead to an immediate rebuke by a spokesman for the Prime Minister, who said Bennett's harsh response "ruined Netanyahu's ingenious plan" to "expose" deep seeded Palestinian hatred towards Jews and Israel.

Netanyahu held a press conference after his intense 90-minute meeting with Kerry on Friday, Jan. 23 while in Davos, he discussed a number of issues relating to the peace talks progress and Kerry's famed framework agreement. The Prime Minister dropped a surprise statement; "I have said it before and I repeat it today: I'm not going to evict a single community, I am not going to uproot any Israeli from his home." Netanyahu also discussed the peace framework, and that it not close to complete, explaining; "The Americans are talking about a suggestion for a framework for negotiations. This is not an agreement, but a path to making progress." He also told Bloomberg news; "We will have peace because we need peace and we want peace. We have suffered from not having peace." However, he did say that he uncertain about Palestinians being a partner for peace, which was just his plan to "expose" the Palestinians in motion.

The statement seemed to indicate that Netanyahu was finally stating their will be no 1967 lines and all the Jewish settlements in the West Bank will remain in Israeli control. However, it took a different turn when a source from the Prime Minister's Office stated on Sunday, Jan. 26; "Just as Israel has an Arab minority, the prime minister doesn't see why Palestine can't have a Jewish minority. The Jews living on their side should have a choice whether they want to stay or not." Through this all Netanyahu, never officially stated he meant the Jewish settlers would be left behind to live in future Palestinian state.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been emphatic that he does not want a "single Jew" in the new Palestinian state, refusing even Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to remain the Jordan Valley for security, and he obviously vetoed Netanyahu's novel idea. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat responded that; "Anyone who says he wants to keep settlers in the Palestinian state is actually saying that he doesn't want a Palestinian state... No settler will be allowed to stay in the Palestinian state, not even a single one, because settlements are illegal and the presence of the settlers on the occupied lands is illegal."

After Erekat's response to the press, on Sunday Jan. 26 Netanyahu's official spokesman declared; "Nothing reveals more the unwillingness of the Palestinian Authority to reach a settlement with Israel than their extreme and reckless response to an unofficial publication. An agreement will only be reached when the Palestinians recognize the Jewish state and only when Israel's vital security needs are guaranteed." The Prime Minister's office revealed that Netanyahu was trying to "expose" the Palestinians true feelings and hatred towards Jews and Israel. Palestinians should not keep refusing to recognize Israel as the Jewish state when, when they declare that a Palestinian state could also only "mono-ethnic"; they contradicted themselves.

Although though it was a given that the Palestinians would harshly refuse Netanyahu proposition to solve the settlement problem, the uproar from his cabinet was much loader and angrier. Economics Minister and Chairman of the Bayit Yehudi Party Naftali Bennett took to Facebook outraged at the prospect, writing; "Never. The idea that Jewish communities will live under Palestinian sovereignty, as expressed by the Prime Minister's Office, is a very grave matter, and it reflects a panicked loss of values. 2,000 years of longing for the Land of Israel did not transpire so that we could live under Abbas's rule, and whoever even considers having Jews live in the Land of Israel under Palestinian sovereignty undermines our presence in Tel Aviv."

Three deputy cabinet members from Netanyahu's Likud Party were also dumbfounded by the proposition and even the mere idea; including; "Deputy Foreign Minister Ze'ev Elkin, Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely and Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon." The ministers all released equally incensed statements responding to the suggestion.

However, it was Bennett as a coalition partner that took the greatest heat for his remarks, with the Prime Minister's Office admonishing his comments on Monday, Jan. 27 calling them a "reckless national endangerment that harms efforts to expose the real face of the Palestinian Authority just to grab headlines." Bennett in his defense had his aides declare he should have been informed; "Netanyahu and Bennett sat yesterday for six hours together in meetings and the prime minister did not say anything on the matter. Next time the prime minister comes up with a brilliant tactical move, he may want to coordinate it with his ministers."

Speaking on to Israel's Chanel 2 on Saturday evening, Jan. 25, chief Israeli negotiator and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni however, also thought it was impossible to have Jewish settlements within a Palestinian state, she said the major blocs will remain under Israeli control, but the outposts will have to be evacuated. Livni told reporters; "Most of the Israelis reside in settlement blocs which will be part of the state of Israel in the future, and they will remain in their homes. Concerning the rest, we're conducting a dialog."

Livni also changed her position about Abbas being a willing peace partner, criticizing that he is unwilling to at the minimum recognize Israel as a Jewish state; "It's unacceptable to us and to the world, and if he continues to adhere to this he will pay a price." Last week on Jan. 22 Israeli President Shimon Peres told officials that he deems it "unnecessary" to have the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state in order to make a peace deal with them, a point which the Prime Minister has been adamant about, and has indicated as a key roadblock to peace.

Kerry held a separate press conference from Netanyahu after his meeting. Kerry stated in that Davos that Israel's security is important; "Security is a priority because we understand that Israel has to be strong to make peace, but we also believe that peace will make Israel stronger." However, he contradicted his statement when he said Israel will not be allowed to a have a security force of IDF in the strategic Jordan Valley; "The Palestinians need to know that at the end of the day, their territory is going to be free of Israeli troops; that occupation ends. But the Israelis, rightfully, will not withdraw unless they know that the West Bank will not become a new Gaza. Nobody can blame any leader of Israel for being concerned about that reality."

Still Kerry made it clear that there will be "a phased but complete withdrawal of Israeli forces." Israel does not trust an international force to protect the country, while the Palestinians oppose Israeli forces. However, Kerry recognized one of Israel's demands, saying; "mutual recognition of the nation-state of the Palestinian people and the nation-state of the Jewish people." Kerry ended with a warning; "Today’s status quo, my friends, I promise you will not last forever."

Kerry also had the opportunity to meet with Livni while in Davos; he met with the Israeli negotiating team earlier in the week in Washington, DC. Kerry will meet separately with Palestinian team this upcoming week.

This was Netanyahu's first meeting with Kerry since Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon called Kerry's approach to the peace talks as "messianic" and "obsessive." On Tuesday, Jan. 14 it was reported that Ya'alon had privately stated; "the American security plan that was presented to us is not worth the paper it was written on. It contains neither security nor peace…. Secretary of State John Kerry - who came here very determined, and operates based upon an unfathomable obsession and a messianic feeling - cannot teach me anything about the Palestinians… The only thing that can 'save' us is that John Kerry will get a Nobel peace prize and leave us alone."

The comments were leaked to Yediot Aharonot, causing uproar especially in the U.S. were State Department press secretary Jen Psaki called the remarks "offensive and inappropriate especially given all that the United States is doing to support Israel's security needs. To question his motives and distort his proposals is not something we would expect from the defense minister of a close ally." While White House Press Secretary Jay Carney expressed; "The remarks of the Israeli defense minister, if accurate, are offensive and inappropriate, especially in light of everything that the United States is doing to support Israel's security needs."

Another official at the State Department demanded that Netanyahu disavow Yaalon and his comments, expressing; "We expect the prime minister to put this right by expressing publicly his disagreement with the statements against Secretary Kerry." The Israeli Prime Minister's rebuke given publically in the Knesset was very tepid and amounted to only a small slap on the wrist. Netanyahu responded; "Even when we have disagreements with the United States, it is about the matter at hand and not about the person."

Yaalon's office subsequently issued a statement apologizing; "Israel and the United states share a common goal to advance the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians led by Secretary Kerry. We appreciate Secretary Kerry's many efforts towards that end. The defense minister had no intention to cause any offense to the secretary, and he apologizes if the secretary was offended by words attributed to the minister."

Kerry however, dismissed Yaalon remarks as unimportant in the larger peace process and US-Israel relations, stating; "Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and I talk regularly and we are both very committed to moving the process forward, and we just can't let one set of comments undermine that effort and I don't intend to." Still according to reports there is still bad blood towards Israel from Kerry and US President Barack Obama over the incident and in general the Israeli and American Jewish response to the current peace talks.

The peace talks have a nine-month time limit, with the negotiations having begun in July 2013 and with just three months left until the April deadline. Last week Erekat indicated that there is "'No chance" the Palestinians will extend the talks. Erket stated; "We've not been presented with a (plan for) extending negotiations, but we will not extend them for even an additional day after the nine-month period we agreed on."

Erekat insists "Netanyahu's government does not want peace," especially in light of the announcement for additional 381 homes in the West Bank settlement of Givat Zeev, the third settlement construction announcement since the third prisoner release late in December 2013. Erekat continued to state; "There are still three months left, which Israel can use to move with us towards a peace agreement, but its actions confirm that it's not interested in this. It's destroying everything that might help a comprehensive peace agreement." However, when Netanyahu spoke to the Foreign Press on Jan. 16 he insisted that regarding construction in the West Bank settlements; "We are keeping in line exactly with the understandings we undertook at the beginning of the talks. Israel undertook no restraints on construction."

PM Netanyahu met with his Likud faction at their weekly meeting on Sunday, Jan. 26 a day early because of the 60 Members of the Knesset who headed to Poland as part of a delegation to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The Prime Minister again tried to explain what the framework agreement will be, it is "parameters," "route to progress," and the American position on the main issues, but both the Israelis and Palestinians can and will object to elements within the framework. Netanyahu's main message is nothing will be set in stone as he had stated in Davos on Friday.

As the time to agree on a peace framework quickly approaches Netanyahu is running out of ways to shift blame to the Palestinians and have the Palestinians refuse to the framework and a peace agreement without Israel being blamed and face the world's wrath. The positions Kerry is proposing are disastrous to Israeli security, no matter what he claims, while agreeing to a peace deal with the 1967 borders and/or evicting and uprooting Israeli settlers from their homes is political suicide for Netanyahu, it will ruin his legacy in Israeli eyes, more than not being able to make a peace agreement during his tenure. Seeing the Israeli reception after Ariel Sharon died this month has been eye opening regarding his political future in Israel, where it matters the most.

Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.

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