JERUSALEM — Israel’s leader declared his country’s permanent claim to parts of the West Bank on Sunday, angering Palestinians though the same claim was also made by previous, more moderate premiers.
Timing and context lent weight to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to two Jewish settlements and his declaration that they would remain in Israel forever. He planted a tree at one of them — Maaleh Adumim, home to about 30,000 Israelis about two miles from Jerusalem — a symbolic act of ownership.
“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, just as U.S. envoy George Mitchell was trying to restart peace talks after a yearlong stalemate.
In his claim, Netanyahu was referring to what Israel calls its “main settlement blocs,” most of them close to Israeli population centers. Israel has long said it would keep the blocs, where about 80 percent of its 300,000 settlers live, and trade Israeli land to the Palestinians in exchange for the blocs.
In failed negotiations with former, relatively moderate Israeli premiers such as Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, Palestinians have indicated they might accept such a trade.
But Netanyahu is suspect in Palestinian eyes, since he has traditionally opposed ceding control of any of the West Bank and has backed settlement expansion. Only under heavy U.S. pressure did he express grudging acceptance of the idea of a Palestinian state in a speech last June.
Netanyahu responded to Palestinian demands for a total construction freeze in the settlements by limiting new building in the West Bank but not in east Jerusalem, claimed by the Palestinians as their capital.
Palestinians rejected the partial freeze as insufficient to get them back to the negotiating table.
Israel countered that by demanding a total freeze in construction in the settlements and east Jerusalem’s large Jewish neighborhoods — also considered settlements by the Palestinians — they have climbed out on a limb and are trapped by their own conditions.