In this file photo, Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, touches… (Sebastian Scheiner / Associated…)
JERUSALEM -- The idea of a Palestinian state is a "dead end," the conflict an intractable problem and Israel has "to live with it," Israel's economy minister, Naftali Bennett, said Monday.
Speaking to a sympathetic audience of settler leaders in Jerusalem, Bennett said "never have so many people spent so much energy on something so pointless," adding that what Israel must do in the West Bank is "build, build, build."
His comments are the latest in a series of remarks by members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government against the two-state solution, raising doubts about the possibility of peace talks that the United States is working to renew.
Earlier this month, it was Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon who dismissed the two-state solution, obliging Netanyahu's office to make clear Danon's positions did not reflect those of the government.
Bennett's comments were explained in the same way by Netanyahu's fellow party member lawmaker Zeev Elkin -- who shares Bennett's views on the issue. Elkin said there are known differences of opinion among coalition members but ultimately "it is the prime minister who determines the policy."
But Peace Now, a veteran organization advocating removal of Israeli settlements from the West Bank and an Israeli withdrawal, called such comments double-talk. "Bennett's remarks faithfully represent the government's intentions and should be taken seriously," the organization said in a statement.
And Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, accused the Israeli government of intentionally undermining U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
“These are not isolated statements but a reaffirmation of political platforms and radical beliefs,” Erekat said. “Israel has officially declared the death of the two-state solution.”
Along with Bennett and Danon, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon has questioned whether Kerry will be able to bring about a peace solution to the decades-old Middle East conflict.
Yaalon said last week that Kerry had failed in his mission because the Palestinians remain intransigent in their demand for an Israeli settlement freeze.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, described the statements, particularly Bennett’s, as “dangerous.”
“These statements are not only a message to President Obama’s administration, which is exerting nonstop efforts to revive the peace process, but are also clear rejection of efforts to save what could be saved,” Rudeineh said.
Bennett heads the Jewish Home, a political party with a strong pro-settlement contingent, which is an important partner in Netanyahu's coalition. After the elections, he struck a pact with Yesh Atid, the party led by Yair Lapid (now finance minister) to form a bloc, despite differences on the Palestinian issue.
Yair Lapid, though less passionate on the issue than many of his party members, has expressed support for negotiating with the Palestinians and declared he will not be part of a government that won't negotiate.
Bennett's positions are not new. Before the elections, he released his own plan for managing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including annexing about 60% of the West Bank and improving economic conditions there.
But with U.S. efforts underway to bring both sides back to the negotiating table, his comments drew anger from pro-talks coalition members. "This is an attempt to sabotage the efforts of Kerry, Netanyahu and Livni," said Minister Amir Peretz, who urged the Palestinians not to "fall into this trap" and return to negotiations after all.
Peretz was referring to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, whose chief condition for joining Netanyahu's coalition was advancing serious negotiations for a two-state solution.
Even before Monday's comments, Palestinian analysts wondered if perhaps the American "charm offensive" has failed. Kerry has not yet rescheduled his planned fifth visit to the region, reportedly postponed amid Syria concerns.
Three months into the tenure of Israel's new government, its fault lines on the Palestinian issue are clearer than ever.
Bennett's comments highlighted "in the sharpest way possible" the seam between the two sides of Netanyahu's coalition and the right wing, according to analyst Hanan Kristal.
"If this becomes a practical agenda, the government could split," Kristal said in a radio interview.
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