FORMER US officials say Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu asked the administration of former US President Barack Obama in late 2014 to consider a plan to offer Palestinian lands in the northern parts of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in exchange for annexing large swathes of the occupied West Bank.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, four US officials, told the Israeli Haaretz newspaper on Wednesday that Netanyahu raised the idea with Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry on a number of occasions.
According to the officials, who had direct knowledge of the relevant conversations, the Israeli premier told Obama and Kerry that he could convince Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to accept the plan.
However, when the US looked into the idea, they received a negative response from Egypt. ‘It started shortly after the 2014 Gaza war,’ one of the officials said. ‘Netanyahu came to meet Obama in the fall of 2014, and his pitch was basically: “John Kerry’s peace talks fell apart a few months ago, we just had a war, and now the peace process is stuck. So I want to offer you a different kind of idea.”’
‘We all thought this idea was a waste of time,’ one of the officials said. ‘We knew it would be a complete non-starter for the Palestinians – why would they trade agricultural lands in the West Bank, close to their largest cities, for sand dunes in Sinai?’ Netanyahu’s office denied the account.
The report came a few weeks after The New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had presented a plan along US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting in Riyadh.
According to Palestinians, Arab and European officials who have heard Abbas’s version of the conversation, bin Salman presented a plan that would be more tilted toward the Israelis than any ever embraced by the American government, one that presumably no Palestinian leader could ever accept.
Palestinian officials have repeatedly expressed worry that Saudi Arabia is forgoing important Palestinian rights as it acts behind the scenes to advance a US ‘grand bargain’ over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that heavily favours Israel. Saudi Arabia’s manoeuvring over Palestine comes amid increasing reports that the Riyadh regime is preparing a normalisation of ties with Tel Aviv.
On Monday, Israeli newspaper Maariv also reported that an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, drafted by Trump’s son-in-law and presidential advisor Jared Kushner, also includes land swaps in the Sinai. Washington however, strongly denies such reports, dismissing them as, ‘a mix of ill-informed speculation and utter nonsense’ and unrelated to the actual content of the peace plan.
Palestinians want the West Bank as part of their future independent state, with East Jerusalem al-Quds as its capital, while the Israeli occupiers of Palestinian territories deem the West Bank as ‘liberated land’, saying formal annexation is only a matter of time. More than half a million Israelis live in over 230 settlements built since the 1967 Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem al-Quds.
The UN and most countries regard the Israeli settlements as illegal, because the territories they are built on were captured by Israel in the 1967 war and are hence subject to the Geneva Conventions, which forbid construction on occupied lands. Nevertheless, the Israeli regime continues to build more settlements and expand existing ones.
On December 6, Trump announced his decision to recognise Jerusalem al-Quds as Israel’s capital and relocate the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem al-Quds. The dramatic shift in Washington’s policy vis-à-vis the city triggered demonstrations in the occupied Palestinian territories and the entire Muslim world.
• The secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) has lashed out at US President Donald Trump for giving a green light to accelerated Israeli settlement activities by recognising Jerusalem al-Quds as the regime’s capital.
‘President Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital did not only disqualify the US from playing any constructive role towards achieving peace, but it provided the extremist Israeli government with an opportunity and a green light to speed up their plans of the disposition of the Palestinian people,’ Saeb Erekat said on Thursday.
Erekat pointed to planned meetings of the Palestinian leadership on Sunday and Monday to formulate a response to Trump’s Jerusalem al-Quds decision and ‘discuss several recommendations toward holding Israel accountable to advance with the realisation of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people’.
Earlier in the day, Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement group that monitors settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, said Israeli authorities have approved more than 1,100 new settler units in the occupied West Bank. The approvals were given on Wednesday by a military affairs committee responsible for authorising settlements.
Meanwhile, the European Union condemned the settlement approvals as ‘further jeopardising the prospect of a contiguous and viable future Palestinian state. The European Union’s position on Israeli settlement construction and related activities is clear and has not changed: all settlement activity is illegal under international law, and it undermines the viability of the two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace. The EU expects the Israeli authorities to reconsider and reverse these decisions,’ an EU spokesperson said in a Thursday statement.
The UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, also condemned the new settlement approvals as an obstacle to peace. In the aftermath of the decision to advance over 1,000 housing units in the occupied West Bank, I reiterate that Israeli settlement construction is illegal under international law and is one of the major obstacles to peace. I urge the Israeli authorities to cease and reverse such actions,’ Mladenov said in a statement.
‘Settlement-related activities undermine the chances for the establishment of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state as part of a negotiated two-state solution,’ he added. According to Peace Now, Israel approved some 6,742 settlement units for construction in 2017, the highest figure since 2013. In 2016, the number was 2,629 units.
The Israeli minister of military affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, said on Tuesday he would present for approval a plan to build 1,285 housing units in West Bank settlements this year. Wednesday’s approvals came just days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party voted for a resolution that calls for the formal annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank.
A few days earlier, the Israeli cabinet approved $11 million in funding for settlement activities in the West Bank. Tel Aviv has stepped up its land grab policies since January 2016, when Trump took office. Less than a month before Trump took office, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2334, calling on Israel to ‘immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem’ al-Quds.
Much of the international community regards the Israeli settlements as illegal because the territories were captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and are hence subject to the Geneva Conventions, which forbid construction on occupied lands. The last round of talks between Israelis and Palestinians collapsed in 2014. Tel Aviv’s settlement activities and its refusal to release senior Palestinian prisoners were among major reasons behind the failure of the negotiations. About 600,000 Israelis live in over 230 illegal settlements built since the 1967 Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem al-Quds.
• Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri has called for his county to be kept out of regional conflicts, lauding the Hezbollah resistance movement for doing its part to de-escalate the tensions. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Hariri said he was open to Hezbollah continuing to participate in the government following the elections slated for May.
‘Hezbollah has been a member of this government. This is an inclusive government that has all the big political parties, and that brings political stability to the country,’ Hariri said during Wednesday interview, defying pressure from Saudi Arabia to confront the resistance movement.
‘My main goal is to preserve this political stability for the unity of the country,’ said Hariri, who reached a power-sharing deal with Hezbollah in 2016. Hariri abruptly declared his resignation from Saudi Arabia and from Saudi-owned television on November 4, accusing Iran and Hezbollah of interfering in the region and signalling that that was his reason to quit.
New details have emerged of Saudi Arabia’s degrading treatment of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri during a recent forced stay in Saudi Arabia, where he was coerced into resigning.
But Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who suspected that Hariri had been forced to step down, refused to accept his resignation and demanded his return from Saudi Arabia first. Lebanese intelligence sources soon concluded that Hariri was under restrictions in Riyadh.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah secretary general, said back then that Saudi authorities had clearly and openly declared a war on Lebanon by holding Prime Minister Hariri hostage and forcing him to quit. The Hezbollah chief says Saudi Arabia has openly declared a war on Lebanon by keeping Prime Minister Saad Hariri under house arrest. That drama ended when Hariri returned to Lebanon on November 22 – partially after a diplomatic intervention by France – and rescinded his resignation on December 5.
In the Wall Street Journal interview, Hariri declined to discuss the details of his stay in Saudi Arabia. The Lebanese prime minister then outlined in his interview a vision under which Lebanon will finally focus on its own affairs and reject foreign interference. ”We cannot accept interference from anyone in Lebanese politics,’ Hariri said, adding ‘Our relationship with Iran – or with the (Persian) Gulf – has to be the best relationship, but one that serves the national interests of Lebanon.’
Hariri further highlighted Hezbollah’s willingness to comply with a policy of ‘disassociating’ Lebanon from regional conflicts. Hariri, however, admitted that Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria will take time as the situation there is more complex. Hezbollah has been helping the national Syrian army in the fight against terrorists in an effort to prevent the spillover of the crisis into Lebanon.
The Lebanese premier also cautioned Israel against any military action against Lebanon, saying any such war would be counterproductive. ”Every time, they say they want to launch a war with the purpose of weakening Hezbollah. And every single time they went to war with Lebanon, they actually strengthened Hezbollah – and weakened the state.’
Hezbollah is Lebanon’s de facto military power, and has been fighting off recurrent acts of Israeli aggression against the homeland. Riyadh, which reportedly maintains clandestine ties with Tel Aviv, however, has made no secret of its opposition to the group, and has been trying for more than a decade to weaken it.
Lebanon has repeatedly praised Hezbollah’s key role in the war against terrorism, with Lebanese President Michel Aoun defending the resistance movement’s possession of arms as essential to Lebanon’s security.