In talk with progressives, Netanyahu suggests Israel could withdraw unilaterally

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel could hand over civilian control of territory to the Palestinians outside the framework of peace talks as a means of maintaining hope for the two-state solution.

Netanyahu, appearing Tuesday during his U.S. trip at a Democratic Party-aligned think tank in a bid to reach out to progressives, appeared to go further than he has until now in signaling what he would concede absent a peace agreement.

The prime minister was asked at the Center for American Progress briefing how he could best preserve the two-state solution now that the prospects for the resumption of talks are slim.

He replied that a negotiated solution is preferable to unilateralism, noting that Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 resulted in the takeover of the coastal strip by Hamas. Pulling out troops as well as settlers from the Gaza Strip left Israel vulnerable to rocket attacks, Netanyahu said.

A unilateral withdrawal was “trouble” he said, “unless you have a capability to prevent the use [by hostile forces] of territories we hand over in a civilian sense, [and] we patrol it from a security point of view.”

It was the first time Netanyahu contemplated in public ceding civilian control of territory as part of a unilateral bid to sustain hopes for a two-state outcome. Earlier this week, after his White House meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, Netanyahu said Israel would focus on improving living conditions for Palestinians.

Within a day of his talk at the Center for American Progress, Netanyahu was clarifying that any such move would not include dismantling settlements.

“I did not speak yesterday evening of a unilateral withdrawal, but of the possibility of unilateral steps that would actually strengthen Israel’s national and security interests in the face of terrorism,” he said in a post Wednesday that appeared only in Hebrew on his Facebook page. “I have no intention of evacuating or pulling up settlements, this mistake will not be repeated.”

The international community has pressed Israel to freeze settlement building outside settlement blocks that Israel believes it will retain under any peace plan.

“We will make sure we don’t incorporate Palestinian populations in our midst, [we must] be able to separate from them and at the same time maintain security in our hands,” Netanyahu said.

Absent the removal of settlements, there remains a broad swathe of territory in area C – the part of the West Bank wholly controlled by Israel – Israel could cede to the Palestinians. Netanyahu did not elaborate in his follow-up statement on Facebook whether he was referring to such territory.

It also is not clear what would constitute Palestinian civilian control in territory patrolled by Israeli troops, and Netanyahu acknowledged that the Palestinians would likely not regard as a concession a handover that included continued Israeli security control.

“I don’t see the Palestinians agreeing to it,” he said.

Both Netanyahu and Obama have given up for now on resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“I don’t know if we can solve the political problem right now, I think President Obama has his own doubts,” Netanyahu said.

The Center for American Progress had encountered objections both from outside leftist commentators and its staff to hosting Netanyahu, in part because of his strident objections – including direct pleas to Congress – to the Iran nuclear deal.

Neera Tanden, the centre’s president, did not bring up the Iran disagreement in her questioning, which was mostly friendly.

There were two contentious moments: When Tanden pressed Netanyahu on settlement expansion, and when she asked him why there have yet to be arrests in the case of three members of a Palestinian family burned to death by alleged Jewish extremists in July, while arrests of Palestinian attackers occur almost immediately.

Netanyahu said building on settlements has been conservative on his watch, and that the attackers in the case of arson were hard to track because they did not belong to an organized structure.

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