Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett defended his proposal to annex West Bank territory as “the only sane plan,” even as it threatened to tear apart the government.
Israeli leaders are contemplating unilateral action in the West Bank after the recent breakdown of peace talks with the Palestinians. Yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strongest coalition partner warned he would topple the governing coalition if it tries to extend Israeli sovereignty over any settlements as Bennett has proposed.
Annexation “is the only sane plan,” Bennett, whose Jewish Home party opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, told Army Radio in an interview today. “It’s no secret that for dozens of years there has been a chasmic disagreement on how to leave the settlements. It hasn’t proven itself.”
Successive Israeli governments have refrained from annexing the West Bank, now home to 2.3 million Palestinians, since capturing the territory in 1967 and encouraging more than 350,000 Jews to live there. Bennett’s call for annexation after the collapse of peacemaking is deepening rifts within the government, which has declared support for Palestinian statehood.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev had no comment on Bennett’s annexation proposal and the opposition it has drawn from Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party is the coalition’s second-largest partner.
‘‘If there is any effort to annex even one settlement unilaterally, Yesh Atid will not just leave the government, it will bring it down,” Lapid said late yesterday at a conference in Herzliya. He advocated the resumption of peace talks and a gradual withdrawal from some West Bank territory, challenging Netanyahu to present a map showing how he would delineate the borders of Israel and a future Palestinian state.
While Netanyahu hasn’t adopted Bennett’s annexation plan, Lapid said the prime minister’s push for renewed construction in existing West Bank settlements has led to an “unprecedented crisis” in relations with the U.S.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief peace negotiator, told the conference her party would also withdraw its support for the government if Netanyahu tries to annex any part of the West Bank without Palestinian agreement. Her Hatenuah party and Yesh Atid command 25 of the coalition’s 68 seats.
The Palestinians, who seek to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, oppose any Israeli settlement of territory they claim for a homeland.
In Herzliya yesterday, Bennett outlined a proposal for Israel to assume sovereignty over about 60 percent of the West Bank where more than 100 settlements are located. Palestinians would be given “enhanced autonomy” in the rest of the territory, he said.
The concept of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has failed, making annexation the solution, he said. “The world will get used to it in time,” he said.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war together with Gaza and east Jerusalem. It annexed east Jerusalem shortly after the war in a move that hasn’t been recognized internationally and evacuated Gaza unilaterally in 2005.
While the United Nations considers the West Bank illegally occupied territory, Israel maintains it has legitimate claims to the land based on its historic ties to the Jewish people.
The latest U.S.-backed effort to forge a peace agreement fell apart in April after almost nine months of negotiations. Any effort to resume them has been complicated by the formation of a new Palestinian government last week backed by Gaza’s Hamas leaders.
Netanyahu says he won’t return to talks as long as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority is backed by Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis and fired thousands of rockets at civilian Israeli targets. Abbas has said the new government will abide by international principles, which include honoring past agreements with Israel and renouncing violence.