Israel’s defense minister has said that his government will not allow any Palestinians to return to the lands historically settled by them and currently claimed by Israel.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman outright dismissed the possibility that his government would make any deals recognizing Palestinians’ claims to territory that was allocated to them by a 1949 armistice between Israel and neighboring Arab countries, but later taken by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967. Israel has since expanded itself geographically by annexing the eastern half of Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital, and parts of the West Bank. The U.N. has not recognized these moves, but Israel argues that returning to the pre-1967 war lines would compromise national security. Whereas previous leaders. such as former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, suggested such a withdrawal was possible, Lieberman said it would never happen.
“We will not agree to the return of a single refugee to within the ‘67 borders,” Lieberman said at a conference in Herzilya, near Tel Aviv, according to Palestinian media outlet Maan News and Israel’s far-right Arutz Sheva. “There will never be another prime minister who makes propositions to Palestinians like Ehud Olmert did,” he added.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians that followed the Six Day War in 1967. The conflict came at a time of heightened regional tensions and broke out after a preemptive Israeli strike on Egypt that also drew Jordan and Syria into the war. Israel managed to capture the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, from Jordan. After another war in 1973 and extensive negotiations, Palestinians were permitted to set up their own, limited rule in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but Israelis have continued to build settlements on Palestinian land, especially in the West Bank, with little reproach and often direct authorization from the Israeli government.
In May 2011, President Barack Obama made a speech in which he stated that the borders of Israel and future Palestinian state “should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” infuriating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his conservative government. The U.S. is Israel’s greatest diplomatic and military ally, often using its veto power to protect Israel from U.N. condemnation and devoting up to $38 billion in military aid per year to Israel. But the U.S. has also long supported and attempted to facilitate reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, and prior administrations have criticized the Israeli settlements policy. The Obama administration’s late-term assertion—via a December speech by former Secretary of State John Kerry—that Israel should return to the 1967 borders was met with outrage by Israel.
“Virtually everyone that I have spoken to has been clear on this principle as well; no changes by Israel to the 1967 lines will be recognized by the international community unless agreed to by both sides,” Kerry said.
Not only did Netanyahu condemn the speech, calling it “unbalanced,” but Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump, said “Israel has been treated very, very unfairly” in response. Ahead of Kerry’s widely anticipated speech, Trump had tweeted, “Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!” When January 20 did arrive, and Trump was sworn in, Netanyahu anticipated quick concessions from the White House, including on settlements and even on moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, effectively recognizing the historic, disputed city as solely the Israeli capital. After a February meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, however, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the Israeli settlements “may not be helpful in achieving” peace and, earlier this month, The Guardian reported that Trump discarded the idea of requiring the embassy to move.
Trump has still maintained a very pro-Israel stance in international affairs. After what appeared to be a cordial meeting in early last month, Trump reportedly yelled at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his visit to the region later in the month, accusing him of lying about his commitment to promoting peace among Palestinians. Trump, along with Israel, have also attempted to court majority Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia into bonding over their mutual rivalries with majority-Shiite Muslim Iran, which all three accuse of promoting regional instability and funding terrorism. Iran is a supporter of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militant group and political party, and, to a lesser extent, Palestinian Sunni Muslim militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip. Both have frequently clashed with Israeli forces and are designated terrorist organizations by the U.S. and Israel.
Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, arrived in Israel Wednesday in order to pursue the White House’s stated goal of achieving peace in the region. While the White House described a meeting between Kushner and Netanyahu as “productive,” The Washington Post said neither Palestinians nor Israelis reportedly expressed much optimism toward any breakthroughs, nor the return of the 5 million Palestinian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world, recorded by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.