Prime Minister Netanyahu has posed as a moderate several times: During his first victorious electoral campaign in 1996, he claimed not to totally oppose the Oslo peace process, only wanting to slow it down in the interest of caution; and with his Bar-Ilan speech in 2009, he claimed to support a two-state solution. Now Netanyahu is again trying to put on a moderate face with this gambit, as described in this Ha’aretz article headline, and sub-head:
During his meeting with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, Netanyahu voices willingness for the first time since taking office to discuss size of settlement blocs and their borders with Palestinians.
The concept of “settlement blocs” — where 75-80% of settlers live within close proximity to the Green Line — was very promising when first articulated by Yossi Alpher and then discussed between Beilin and Abbas about 20 years ago. This is where the principle of an exchange of territories was born and should have paved the way for a final peace agreement in the 1990s. Some little things got in the way: an assassination, waves of terrorism, lost elections, and several aborted rounds of negotiations (including two that came close to success).
In theory, an Israeli leader who suggests negotiating with the PLO on how to demarcate these settlement blocs is a good thing. According to Bernard Avishai, Olmert and Abbas came close to resolving this in 2008; sticking points that still needed to be hammered out included the fate of Ariel and maybe Efrat. In fact, I seem to recall that this very thing (defining the settlement blocs) was bandied about as an obtainable objective during Kerry’s effort last year. But obviously, Netanyahu has no credibility as a peacemaker. Unfortunately, the PLO leadership now seems to be rejecting the concept of exchanging territory on the basis of settlement blocs, a setback to any prospect for successful bilateral negotiations.
It is understandable that the Palestinians would not trust Netanyahu in new negotiations, but they may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater by seemingly rejecting the concept of being compensated with Israeli territory in exchange for Israel annexing a defined area of the settlement blocs. Swapping land would save Israel from a physically and politically impossible task — removing 400-500 thousand people from their homes across the Green Line. This is also from that Haaretz article:
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told Haaretz on Tuesday that Netanyahu’s proposal was an attempt to legitimize the settlements, an issue he said that the Palestinians were not prepared to accept.
Erekat, a member of the PLO’s executive committee, said that the Palestinian stance was very clear: West Bank settlements are not legitimate and there is therefore no place for discussion about their borders, according to international law.
Similarly, this is Dr. Hanan Ashrawi’s statement on behalf of the PLO Executive Committee, Department of Culture and Information (i.e., the Palestinian Hasbara department):
This is a disingenuous and manipulative exercise of political and legal deception. All settlements are illegal and in flagrant contravention of international law and consensus, and any efforts to annex and to legalize the settlements blocs is a blatant attempt to steal more Palestinian land and to legitimize Israel’s ongoing system of apartheid, land theft and expansion.
Any negotiations must be based on international law, a binding and concrete timetable to dismantle and remove all illegal settlements, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.
A new nightmare scenario may be in the making. Due to a series of bitter disappointments, moderate Palestinians may now be backing away from the possibility of arriving at a realistic peace agreement, should more dovish parties come to the fore in Israel — as they may yet, given the weaknesses and divisions in Netanyahu’s new rightist and ultra-Orthodox coalition.