Israeli official: Palestine should allow settlers

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014. (AP Photos/Ronen Zvulun, Pool)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes that all Jewish settlers should have the right to remain in their homes in a future Palestine, an official in his office said Sunday, offering a novel approach to one of the stickiest issues in Mideast peace talks albeit one that was immediately rejected by the Palestinians and settlers themselves.

In years of negotiations, it has been assumed that any Jewish settlers not inside Israeli territory under a future peace deal would have to be removed. But Netanyahu believes there is no reason for a future Palestinian state to be "ethnically cleansed," the official said.

The comments expanded upon Netanyahu's comments over the weekend in Davos, Switzerland, where he told reporters at the World Economic Forum that he did not intend to uproot any Israelis in a peace deal.

Israel has proven before that it can tear down settlements when it thinks the price is worth it, such as in 2005 when it removed all of its 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip. But the sight of soldiers dragging families from their homes was a painful one for Israelis and the government is wary of repeating it unless it were guaranteed a final peace accord that would end all hostilities. Netanyahu himself was opposed to the Gaza withdrawal and remains critical of the settlers' evacuation.

Israel and the Palestinians are currently engaged in peace talks after a long lull. There have been no outward signs of progress thus far and with an April deadline looming, talks have been mostly characterized by each side staking out tough positions and slinging dirt at the other.

Given the Palestinians staunch opposition to absorbing settlers, Netanyahu's latest condition could pose another obstacle to an agreement. Alternatively, it could offer a creative option to one of the major stumbling blocks.

More than 500,000 settlers live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories that Israel captured in the 1967 war and which the Palestinians now hope will be part of their future state. East Jerusalem and the West Bank, known to religious Jews as Judea and Samaria, are parts of the biblical land of Israel. Hard-line Israelis object to ceding either area on both spiritual and security grounds.

Netanyahu already has said he wants to retain major settlement "blocs," home to the vast majority of settlers, as part of any deal. The Palestinians have signaled they would give up their claims to the lands where the blocs are located under a land swap giving them additional territory from what is now inside Israel.

But experts believe roughly 100,000 settlers live outside of these blocs, and their fate under any final peace deal is unclear. Many of these settlers likely would evacuate their homes in return for fair compensation. Others, however, are deeply ideological and would resist any forcible eviction.

The Israeli official said Netanyahu believes there is no reason to uproot them against their will, particularly since Arabs made up about 20 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens.

"The prime minister believes that in peace, just as Israel has an Arab minority, there is no logical reason why the Palestinian state could not contain a Jewish minority and that Jews living in Judea and Samaria would be given the option to stay," he said. "It should not be accepted a priori that in peace the Palestinian state must be ethnically cleansed."

The Israeli official spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue remained under discussion and hadn't been formally accepted as policy by the government. He said that for Netanyahu this has been a "longstanding" position but would not address the modalities of any such arrangement, such as what type of citizenship they would hold and who would be responsible for their safety.

But he added: "If they (the Palestinians) want to ethnically cleanse the Palestinian territory of all Jews what sort of peace are they offering?"

The comments were first reported by the Times of Israel website.

The Palestinians consider settlements built beyond the 1967 borders to be illegal land grabs and rejected the idea of incorporating them in a future state.

"Anyone who says he wants to keep settlers in the Palestinian state is actually saying that he doesn't want a Palestinian state," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. "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."

The settlers themselves are generally not pleased about the prospect either, preferring to stay under Israeli sovereignty. Settler leader Dani Dayan said that Netanyahu's stance was "positive, but not sufficient."

"Of course every settler should have the right to remain in their home but it should be under Israeli rule," he said. "I came to this land to live in an Israeli state, not a Palestinian state."

While at first glance, Netanyahu's position appeared to be aimed at easing the concerns of settlers and their backers in his government, he was slammed by hawkish allies indicating that he may not have the political backing for such an initiative, even if it were someone accepted by the Palestinians and the world.

Members of his own Likud party reacted angrily as did Cabinet Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, who called on Netanyahu to disavow the concept, which he called "ethical insanity."

"Whoever imagines that Jews in the land of Israel can live under Palestinian rule undermines our living in Tel Aviv," he said.