Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's vow to never evacuate Jewish settlements from occupied land drew outrage Tuesday from Palestinians and complicated matters for the Trump administration's would-be peace envoys as they try to restart talks.
The Palestinians called on the White House to intervene, and visiting U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres challenged Netanyahu's comments, reiterating the international community's opposition to Israeli settlements.
Well over 100 settlements dot the West Bank and a string of U.S.-led peace plans over the past two decades have called for evacuating at least some of them to make way for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Netanyahu's hard-line religious and nationalist base opposes such a move.
Netanyahu appears to have been emboldened by the election of President Donald Trump, who, unlike a string of predecessors, has not endorsed the idea of a two-state solution. Trump also has surrounded himself with a team of advisers who are longstanding supporters of settlements. These include his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is leading the peace efforts and was in the region last week for meetings with the sides.
Netanyahu spoke at a ceremony Monday night in Barkan, a settlement in the northern West Bank.
"There is a momentum of development in Judea and Samaria," he said, referring to the West Bank by its biblical name.
"We have returned here for eternity," Netanyahu added. "There will be no more uprooting of settlements in the land of Israel. Settlements will not be uprooted."
The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, for an independent state alongside Israel. Israel captured the areas in the 1967 Mideast war, though it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
The Palestinians say that settlements on occupied lands are illegal and undermine the goal of a two-state solution by gobbling up territory they seek — a position that is widely backed by the international community. Over 600,000 Israeli Jews now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
While Netanyahu has made similar pledges before, the timing — on the heels of Kushner's visit and with the U.N. chief in town — gave it added significance and raised questions about his intentions for resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.
During the Obama administration, Netanyahu paid lip service to the idea of a two-state solution, implying that a Palestinian state could be established in parts of the West Bank or that settlements might somehow remain behind in a future Palestine. However, in recent weeks, Netanyahu has been pandering to his base, with hard-line statements and attacks on the media as a corruption investigation against him gains steam.
With Netanyahu avoiding talk of Palestinian independence or a territorial withdrawal, the Palestinians are pushing the new U.S. administration to take a stand. In particular, they have been pressing Washington to call for a freeze on settlement construction and to endorse the two-state solution.
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, denounced Netanyahu's comments and said they hinder U.S. peace efforts.
"This is an Israeli message to the U.S. administration," he said. "We call upon the U.S. administration to deal with these provocations," which, he said, hinder U.S. peace efforts and are "an attempt to return things to square one."
The Palestinians have expressed impatience with Kushner's slow start. Kushner held talks last week with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as well as separate meetings with Arab allies in Egypt and the Gulf. The Americans appear to be seeking a broader region-wide approach to peace by bringing in moderate Arab countries.
A senior White House official played down Netanyahu's comments.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue, said the Israeli position was known and that the U.S. is talking to all sides to reach a deal "that factors in all substantive issues."
Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official, said Monday that the Americans had asked for three to four months to conduct more preparations for a Mideast peace initiative.
Shaath, speaking to the Voice of Palestine radio station, said Abbas told the Americans to use the additional time to ensure a productive peace process. "We don't want to talk from scratch," he said.
The Palestinians received a boost from Guterres, who assured them the international community remains solidly behind the goal of Palestinian independence and rejects Israeli settlements, which he called illegal and a "major obstacle" to peace.
"I want to express very strongly the total commitment of the United Nations, and my personal total commitment, to do everything for a two-state solution," he said. "There is no plan B to the two-state solution."
Trump's Mideast envoy, Jason Greenblatt, meanwhile, spent the day in the northern West Bank meeting with Israeli officials discussing initiatives to help the Palestinian economy. These include an industrial zone, power substation and plans for a railway track linking the West Bank to the Israeli port of Haifa.
Greenblatt later visited a hospital in northern Israel where Israeli doctors have been treating refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
AP correspondent Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed reporting from Ramallah, West Bank.
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