Nov 15, 2016 12:56 AM

Israeli minister: Trump election is time to 'reset' policies

The Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) — A senior Israeli Cabinet minister on Monday said the election of Donald Trump has helped create an opportunity for Israel to abandon its stated commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The remarks by Naftali Bennett reflect sentiment in the nationalist Israeli right wing that Trump's election could usher in a new era of relations with the United States. While the two countries are close allies, relations were sometimes tense between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because of their vastly different world views.

Bennett last week welcomed Trump's election, predicting that "the special relationship" with the U.S. would grow stronger and noting that the Republican campaign platform had no mention of a Palestinian state. "The era of a Palestinian state is over," he declared at the time.

Speaking to foreign reporters on Monday, Bennett was more cautious, citing an order by Netanyahu for his Cabinet not to talk about the election in public. But he made clear that he will push his own government to rethink its commitment to Palestinian independence.

"The combination of the changes in the United States, in Europe and the region provide Israel with a unique opportunity to reset and rethink everything," Bennett said.

"It's no secret that I think that the notion of setting up a Palestine in the heart of Israel is a profound mistake," he added. "I believe that we have to bring alternative new ideas instead of the Palestinian state approach."

Though Bennett said he didn't know whether Trump would support that view, he said it's critical that Israel now clearly define its own vision.

"My expectation is not from anyone abroad," he said. "After many years, the Israeli government has to decide what do we want."

Bennett's comments were also an indicator of the pressure Netanyahu could soon face to abandon his commitment to the "two-state solution" favored by Obama and the international community.

For two decades, the international community has been pushing for a negotiated peace deal that would include the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

The thinking was that Israel's continued occupation of millions of Palestinians would create a demographic time bomb in which Arabs would eventually outnumber Jews, threatening Israel's status as a democracy with a Jewish majority.

After opposing Palestinian independence for most of his career, Netanyahu reluctantly endorsed the idea shortly after Obama took office in 2009. But critics, including Obama, have said that continued Israeli settlement on occupied territories have undercut this goal, and the Obama administration has at times questioned Netanyahu's commitment to seeking peace.

Bennett leads the Jewish Home party, a coalition partner that is affiliated with the West Bank settler movement. He is one of the most influential voices in Israeli politics, and both his party and most members of Netanyahu's Likud oppose Palestinian statehood on either religious or security grounds.

Bennett has instead called for annexing parts of the West Bank and granting the Palestinians in other parts expanded autonomy, with new roads, office parks and economic opportunities, with Israel retaining overall security control.

Israeli hard-liners welcomed Trump's election last week, noting the strong support for Israel in his campaign platform and the many pro-Israel officials who advised him during his campaign. Their spirits were further boosted after a Trump adviser, Jason Greenblatt, told an Israeli radio station last week that his boss doesn't think West Bank settlements are an "obstacle to peace."

Following Greenblatt's comments, Cabinet Minister Ofir Akunis, a close Netanyahu associate, called for a renewed wave of settlement construction.

But such sentiments may have been premature.

Trump's unpredictability has raised concerns that he might change his attitudes once in office. Over the weekend, for instance, Trump told the Wall Street Journal that he would like to help broker a solution to the conflict "for humanity's sake."

In an interview with "Israel Today," a free daily owned by Republican super-donor Sheldon Adelson, Trump said he believed his administration can play "a significant role" in helping the Mideast parties reach an agreement.

Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday that he would soon be meeting Trump. He ordered his Cabinet and lawmakers to avoid speaking to the media about the election while the incoming U.S. administration formulates its policies.

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