JERUSALEM — Israel’s leader declared his country’s permanent claim to parts of the West Bank on Sunday, angering Palestinians again and complicating efforts by President Barack Obama’s Mideast envoy — though the same claim was also made by previous, more moderate premiers.
Timing and context lent weight to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to two Jewish settlements and his declaration that they would remain in Israel forever. He planted a tree at one of them — Maaleh Adumim, home to about 30,000 Israelis about two miles (three kilometres) from Jerusalem — a symbolic act of ownership.
“Our message is clear: We are planting here, we will stay here, we will build here. This place will be an inseparable part of the state of Israel for eternity,” Netanyahu proclaimed, just as envoy George Mitchell was trying to restart peace talks after a yearlong stalemate.
In his claim, Netanyahu was referring to what Israel calls its “main settlement blocs,” most of them close to Israeli population centres. Israel has long said it would keep the blocs, where about 80 per cent of its 300,000 settlers live, and trade Israeli land to the Palestinians in exchange for the blocs.
In failed negotiations with former, relatively moderate Israeli premiers like Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, Palestinians have indicated they might accept such a trade.
But Netanyahu is suspect in Palestinian eyes, since he has traditionally opposed ceding control of any of the West Bank and has backed settlement expansion. Only under heavy U.S. pressure did he express grudging acceptance of the idea of a Palestinian state in a speech last June.
Netanyahu responded to Palestinian demands for a total construction freeze in the settlements by limiting new building in the West Bank but not in east Jerusalem, claimed by the Palestinians as their capital.
Palestinians rejected the partial freeze as insufficient to get them back to the negotiating table.
Israel countered that by demanding a total freeze in construction in the settlements and east Jerusalem’s large Jewish neighbourhoods — also considered settlements by the Palestinians — they have climbed out on a limb and are trapped by their own conditions.
On Sunday, claiming Maaleh Adumim and the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem, Netanyahu once again provided fuel for Palestinian outrage.
“This is an unacceptable act that destroys all the efforts being exerted by Senator Mitchell in order to bring the parties back to the negotiating table,” said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
This came as Mitchell was conducting his latest round of talks in the region to try to get peace talks back on track.
In Amman, Jordan, Mitchell appeared unmoved by Netanyahu’s declaration on Maaleh Adumim, restating the U.S. goal of a Palestinian state living next to Israel in peace. “We intend to continue to pursue our efforts until that objective is achieved,” he said after meeting Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah II.
On the eve of Mitchell’s arrival last week, Netanyahu said Israel would demand a presence on the Jordanian border of the West Bank to stop weapons and rocket smuggling even if a peace deal is reached, in order to protect Israel’s heartland from militant attacks like those from Gaza.
Palestinians rejected that as well. They want a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem and say they will not accept any Israeli presence there — soldiers or settlers.
After his meeting with Mitchell, Netanyahu told his Cabinet he had heard “a few interesting ideas” on renewing peace talks. No details were forthcoming.
Even Mitchell’s boss, Obama, has been sounding pessimistic about the prospects.
Last year, Obama took office with the ambitious aim of putting Mideast peacemaking on a fast track. Instead, the peace mission has stalled over Israel’s settlements on occupied lands and the refusal by the Palestinians to return to peace talks.
Obama acknowledged in an interview published last week that he underestimated the domestic political forces at play in the region and overreached in expecting a quick breakthrough.
Also Sunday, a Belgian official protested after Israel prevented him from visiting Gaza. Development Minister Charles Michel said European officials must be able to visit the territory because they have aid projects there.
“This situation is unacceptable,” he told RTL TV.
Israel routinely bans foreign officials from crossing into Gaza, maintaining that such visits bolster the Islamic Hamas rulers of Gaza. Officials can enter Gaza from Egypt.
Associated Press Writer Jamal Halaby contributed to this report from Amman, Jordan.