Netanyahu poll rival plans West Bank settlement removals

JERUSALEM, RAMALLAH: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s toughest election rival voiced openness on Wednesday to a future removal of settlements from the occupied West Bank, sparking debate over diplomacy with the Palestinians as a US peace plan looms.

The secret plan is widely expected to be unveiled after Israel’s April 9 ballot. Any recommendations it might contain to hand over territory to the Palestinians — and how Israelis respond — could affect the composition of Israel’s next coalition government.

Pollsters see Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party winning around 30 of Parliament’s 120 seats, setting him up for a fifth term. He has ruled out removing settlements from the West Bank, among areas where Palestinians want statehood.

Benny Gantz, a popular ex-general whose new Resilience party is gaining ground against Likud with as many as 24 projected seats, stepped into the settlements minefield on Wednesday.

“We need to find a way not to have dominion over other people,” Gantz told Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper when asked about prospects for accommodation with the Palestinians, whose negotiations with Netanyahu stalled in 2014.

Citing Israel’s unilateral 2005 Gaza withdrawal, Gantz added: “We need to take the lessons and apply them elsewhere.”

Naftali Bennett, a partner in the current rightist coalition, said on Twitter: “Given the Trump plan for a Palestinian state that awaits us immediately after the election, there is a clear and present danger here to the settlements.”

The Trump administration has not explicitly endorsed Palestinian statehood. US envoys have spoken of both sides in the conflict needing to compromise. 

Resilience signalled Gantz would conduct any West Bank withdrawals differently to the Gaza pullout — a possible hint at agreed redeployments with the Palestinians.

The Palestinians responded by reiterating their position that the settlements — deemed illegal by most world powers — are an obstacle to their statehood goal and should be removed unless annexed by Israel under negotiated territorial exchanges.

“These ideals and values are the way to achieve peace,” said a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has boycotted the Trump administration since December 2017 over its perceived pro-Israel leanings. 

Abbas has meanwhile pledged to continue security coordination with Israel, despite recent US funding cuts to Palestinian security forces and years of impasse in the peace process.

Abbas told a gathering of Palestinian and Israeli activists on Wednesday that his government has counter-terrorism agreements with nearly 100 countries, including Israel.

He added his hopes that a party committed to peace would succeed in the upcoming Israeli elections.

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