A split has emerged in the Israeli cabinet over whether to seek the resumption of peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and its moderate leader, Mahmoud Abbas, in order to move towards an agreement on the future of the occupied West Bank and shore up Israel’s diplomatic standing after the Gaza war.
The division has come to the fore in acrimonious cabinet exchanges since the war ended last week and unusually sharp criticism by moderate ministers over the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to expropriate 988 acres of land from Palestinian owners near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank in the biggest settlement step since peace talks broke down in April.
The Finance Minister, Yair Lapid, said that the move, which was “deplored” by the UK as a further blow to hopes of a two-state peace solution, “harms the state of Israel”.
“We are after a military operation and facing a complex diplomatic reality,” Mr Lapid said. “Maintaining the support of the world was already challenging, so why was it so urgent to create another crisis with the US and the world?” Israel came under sharp criticism for the high Palestinian civilian casualty rate, which it said was due to the militant Hamas movement using the population as “human shields”.
The leading proponents of a postwar diplomatic push are the Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni, and Mr Lapid, who argue that the war with Hamas has underscored the need to boost Mr Abbas and work together with Egypt, Jordan and other moderate Arab states. But Mr Netanyahu and the Defence Minister, Moshe Yaalon, say Israel’s experience with Hamas puts territorial concessions to Mr Abbas out of the question. Mr Yaalon has argued in recent interviews that any land vacated in the occupied West Bank would end up being used, like territory vacated by Israel in Gaza in 2005, for firing rockets towards Ben Gurion airport and greater Tel Aviv.
And Mr Netanyahu indicated in significant remarks in July that were largely missed due to the focus on Gaza that Israel would never agree to full Palestinian sovereignty and an end to its security control in the West Bank. Israel, he said, had to ensure that “we don’t get another Gaza in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]”.
He argued, according to The Times of Israel website, that the closer your enemies are physically to your borders, the more they’ll try to tunnel under those borders and fire rockets at you.
Mr Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said that his April decision to break off peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority because its cabinet was formed with the participation of Hamas “still stands”. Ms Livni’s position by contrast is that Israel should have no hesitations about negotiating with Mr Abbas.
“We are seeing two very different approaches; the question is: can they continue much longer to be in the same cabinet?” said Leslie Susser, diplomatic editor of The Jerusalem Report. But, he adds, recent polls have shown a significant drop in support for Ms Livni’s Hatnua party and Mr Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, something that could deter them from breaking up the coalition right now.
Abdullah Abdullah, a Palestinian legislator who supports Mr Abbas, said of the Israeli split: “The Israeli cabinet is in turmoil and there are differences. But [Netanyahu] won’t change until he sees there’s a price internationally.”