The army has drawn up plans to withdraw to pre-intifada lines in the West Bank, if ordered to do so by the government, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Such a withdrawal was one of the demands that US President Barack Obama made to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the White House last month.
The demand refers to the positions the IDF held when the second intifada erupted in late 2000, before the army swept into all the Arab towns and cities in the West Bank. It maintains a presence on the outskirts of many of them today.
“The IDF has plans for this possibility and is prepared for a scenario that Israel will approve the American demand and decide to pull back to pre-intifada lines,” a top defense official told the Post recently.
The Post has learned that the IDF brass, particularly the Central Command, have recommended not carrying out such a withdrawal.
“The IDF’s freedom to operate everywhere is extremely important in keeping terrorism down to a minimum,” the senior defense official said.
As proof, the official referred to a recent IDF operation in Jenin, during which troops arrested two top Islamic Jihad operatives. Operations in Jenin are still carried out, the official said, despite the “Jenin Model” program that saw the deployment of US-trained PA forces in the city and Israel’s decision to scale back its operations.
“We still operate there whenever we believe there is a threat,” the official said.
In addition to the IDF withdrawal, Obama has asked Netanyahu to extend the 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction which the cabinet approved and which is set to expire in late September.
He also asked Netanyahu to stop Jewish construction in east Jerusalem and to release Fatah prisoners in a goodwill gesture to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Netanyahu has yet to respond to the list, which is often reported in the media but has never been formally publicized by the White House or the Prime Minister’s Office.
Last week, however, Netanyahu met several times with his inner cabinet of seven ministers.
Completion of the withdrawal plans comes in advance of a much-anticipated visit by US special envoy George Mitchell. As of press time, however, neither the State Department nor the Prime Minister’s Office had a date for that visit.
On Monday, in a lengthy interview with ABC, Netanyahu set down his “red lines” when it came to US or Palestinian demands.
“To stop all construction – Jewish construction in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem – is totally, totally a nonstarter,” said Netanyahu.
In Jerusalem Tuesday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman rejected any attempt to divide the capital city by giving control of east Jerusalem to the Palestinians. He said Jerusalem must remain in Israel’s hands.
“It cannot be divided directly or indirectly. It is our eternal city,” Lieberman declared.
Still, Netanyahu told ABC that “the issue of Jerusalem... will be discussed in the final settlement and negotiations.”
It would be a mistake, he said, to halt construction in Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem prior to talks. Such a demand prevents peace, Netanyahu said.
“Suppose as a precondition to Palestinian negotiations Israel asked them to dismantle refugee camps to prove that they understood that there could be no right of return in a two-state solution,” he said.
“You would rightly say, ‘Ah, Israel is trying now to stack the deck. It’s trying not to enter into negotiations.’ And, in fact, that’s exactly what the Palestinians are doing – to us” with their refusal to negotiate until Israel stops construction in West Bank settlements and in Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, Netanyahu said.
He was careful during the ABC interview not to state that Obama had asked Israel to halt east Jerusalem construction, and instead mentioned it as a Palestinian demand.
During speeches he gave in the last two days, as well as during his ABC interview, Netanyahu called for direct negotiations with the Palestinians. It’s a call he has repeatedly made since he entered office in March 2009.
“I want peace. I want to negotiate peace. I say, let’s remove all preconditions, including those on Jerusalem. Let’s get into the room and negotiate peace without preconditions. That’s the simplest way to get to peace,” said Netanyahu.
In the past, Netanyahu said, Israel and the Palestinians held direct talks in spite of construction in West Bank settlements and east Jerusalem. He added that previous peace plans had placed Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem under Israeli control.
“The real question is why are we arguing about something that’s not a real argument? I don’t think that makes any sense,” he said.
During the interview, Netanyahu listed steps he had taken, including improvements on movement and access for the Palestinians as well as the 10-month moratorium on new housing starts in the settlements.
Netanyahu said that despite the impasse with the US, the relationship between the two countries was still very strong.
“I think with any family, with any relationship – the relationship of allies, even your relatives – you have ups and downs. You have disagreements. But I think this relationship between the United States of America and the people of Israel is rock-solid,” the prime minister said.
Netanyahu rejected the idea that the US would try to impose a peace deal on both sides.
“I… don’t believe anyone will seriously think that you can impose peace. Peace has to come from the parties sitting down with each other, resolving their differences. And this is what we want to achieve. This is what I want to achieve,” he said.
On Monday, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said that the time was not ripe for a US-promoted Middle East peace plan.
“A number of people have advocated that,” Emanuel said on The Charlie Rose Show on Bloomberg Television.
“That time is not now,” Emanuel said. The “time now is to get back to the proximity talks, have those conversations that eventually will lead to direct negotiations, start to make the hard decisions to bring a balance between the aspirations of the Israelis for security, and make that blend with the aspirations of the Palestinian people for their sovereignty.”
A number of Obama administration officials have, in recent weeks, suggested via leaks to the media that the president is considering such a plan by the fall.
Obama himself, along with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and now Emanuel, have rebuffed those reports, saying it would be best to leave a plan to the parties concerned.
JTA contributed to this report.