JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel’s prime minister declared on Sunday that his country would retain parts of the West Bank forever – a statement that infuriated Palestinians and could complicate the year-old peace mission of a visiting U.S. envoy.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid claim to disputed territory just hours after meeting with George Mitchell, the Obama administration’s Middle East envoy. Mitchell has been shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders since late last week in hopes of breaking a deadlock over construction in Israeli settlements.
“Our message is clear: We are planting here, we will stay here, we will build here, this place will be an inseparable part of the state of Israel for eternity,” Netanyahu proclaimed at a tree-planting ceremony celebrating the Jewish arbor day at a settlement just south of Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s participation Sunday in tree-planting ceremonies in two West Bank settlements near Jerusalem were an apparent attempt to soothe Jewish settlers who vehemently oppose his decision – taken under intense U.S. pressure – to slow West Bank construction.
Both settlements lie within areas Israel wants to keep in any final agreement with the Palestinians.
“We are here and we will stay here and build here as part of sovereign Jerusalem,” he said.
On the eve of Mitchell’s arrival last week, Netanyahu said Israel would want to retain a presence in the West Bank even if a peace deal is reached with the Palestinians in order to protect Israel’s heartland from missile attacks by militants.
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, for a future independent state and say settlements undermine this goal. They have refused to resume peacemaking until all settlement construction stops, something Netanyahu has refused to do.
Following his meeting with Mitchell, Netanyahu told his Cabinet he had heard “a few interesting ideas” on renewing peace talks. The U.S. official later left Jerusalem for another meeting later in the day with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in neighboring Jordan.
Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said Netanyahu’s tree-planting Sunday undermined peace prospects.
“This is an unacceptable act that destroys all the efforts being exerted by senator Mitchell in order to bring the parties back to the negotiating table,” he said. Contacts with the Americans would continue, he said, but a return to negotiations with Israel appeared unlikely anytime soon.
In a meeting with Mitchell Friday, Abbas stood firm by his demand for a total settlement freeze. Netanyahu has imposed some restrictions on construction in the West Bank, but has not ended it. And he hasn’t put any limits on building in east Jerusalem, home to sacred Jewish, Muslim and Christian sites and claimed by the Palestinians as their future capital.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem shortly after capturing it along with the West Bank from Jordan in 1967. Today, nearly 200,000 Israelis live in Jewish neighborhoods built in east Jerusalem. The international community does not recognize the annexation and views the neighborhoods to be settlements.
Mitchell later arrived in Jordan where he met Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Last year, President Barack Obama took office with the ambitious aim of putting Mideast peacemaking on a fast track. Instead, the peace mission has stalled over Israel’s settlements on occupied lands and the refusal by the Palestinians to return to peace talks.
Obama acknowledged last week that he underestimated the domestic political forces at play in the region and overreached in expecting a quick breakthrough.
Associated Press correspondent Jamal Halaby contributed to this report from Amman, Jordan.