Israel is coordinating its settlement construction with the White House, including the approval for building the largest number of homes in the West Bank since 1992, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman told the crowd at a Times of Israel event in northern Tel Aviv on Thursday night.
Earlier this year, US President Donald Trump asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements” at a press conference in the White House. But this no longer seems to be the American position, Liberman indicated.
Giving a rare English-language interview, the defense minister said that while coordination is not happening on the level of “every 10 houses,” there is general understanding between Jerusalem and Washington about acceptable levels of construction in the West Bank.
Even if Israel were to exceed the level that the US wants, Liberman added, however, he expects that the Trump administration “respects us enough” to not discuss it publicly. That comment was an apparent reference to the practice of the Obama administration to publicly condemn all Israeli construction over the pre-1967 lines.
At the Thursday evening event in the northern Tel Aviv port, which was jointly organized by The Times of Israel and the Tel Aviv International Salon, Liberman discussed a wide range of topics from the Syrian civil war to his first days in Israel as a 20-year-old new immigrant from Moldova.
The issue of the growing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip dominated the night’s discussion.
Liberman denied that Israel had any responsibility to ease the difficulties facing the Palestinians in the coastal enclave, who have access to just a few hours of electricity a day, saying instead that Israel should work to make the world understand that their plight is the fault of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
“It doesn’t make sense that Hamas collected in the past year NIS 100 million every month in taxes… but are not prepared to divert one shekel for electricity,” Liberman said.
‘It doesn’t make sense that Hamas collected in the past year NIS 100 million every month, but are not prepared to spend a shekel on electricity’
Instead the terror group invests that money in “rockets and tunnels,” he added.
“At the end of the day, it’s not our responsibility. We evacuated completely to the 1967 lines,” he said, in a reference to the 2005 disengagement from the Strip, in which some 7,000 settlers were removed from the 21 Israelis communities in Gaza.
Liberman was asked about his opposition to a proposal by Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz to construct an artificial island with a port off the Gaza coast in order to aid the ailing economy of the Strip.
The defense minister said that Hamas would present the port as a victory, and he repeated his belief that it would not be feasible in any case given Israel’s security requirements.
A Gaza port would “become a way of smuggling weapons and mercenaries and Iranian operatives,” Liberman said.
The defense minister decried Iran as the source of much of the world’s miseries.
“We have a real problem with Iran, but it’s not just Israel,” he said, pointing to Tehran’s efforts to “undermine” countries across the Middle East.
According to Liberman, the “nearly 600,000 killed and seven million displaced” in the Syria civil war are “only because of Iranian involvement.”
On the issue of the Syrian civil war, Liberman would not say what specific outcome Israel was hoping for, only that he was ultimately interested in ensuring that, regardless of how it ends, Israel remain safe.
Earlier this week, the defense minister said that Israel was “closer than ever” to a regional agreement — not a peace deal — with Arab countries, in light of the presidency of Donald Trump and the Sunni Muslim nations coming together to fight Iran and violent extremism.
He elaborated Thursday that he doubted such an agreement would revolve around social or economic issues, but thought it would more likely be concerned with security cooperation, given the level of volatility and violence in the region.
Liberman said that Israel’s somewhat cold, but lasting agreements with Jordan and Egypt, with which Israel now has deep security ties, are “good examples” for other Arab countries about the benefits of cooperating with Israel.
However, he said dryly that he doubted the Middle East would ever become “like Scandinavia,” adding wryly that there will be regional peace “maybe when the moshiach comes,” using the Hebrew word for the messiah.
The defense minister said that he doubted a final status agreement with the Palestinians would be possible without their first being an agreement with the “moderate Arab states” in the region — the so-called “outside-in” approach.
He noted that PA President Mahmoud Abbas turned down former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s offer at a peace summit in Annapolis, Maryland, in 2008, which Liberman said was the best proposal the Palestinians could have received.
“I don’t see intention on the Palestinian side” to go back to the negotiating table, he said.
Liberman reiterated his long-held belief that an accord would only be possible if the future Palestinian state included the Arab towns in northern Israel, otherwise known as the Triangle.
The defense minister said it was only fair that there should be a “homogenous Palestinian state and a homogenous Jewish state.”
However, he said he did not believe that “Arabs in Israel are a fifth column,” or a traitorous segment of the population. “I think they are loyal citizens.”
The defense minister did, by contrast, doubt the loyalty of Arab Israeli Knesset members, who he “never saw with an Israeli flag, only a Palestinian flag.”
He said he still believed Trump would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. “Maybe this year, maybe next year,” he speculated.
Liberman, who immigrated from Moldova in 1978, said that Israel is the only country where you could immigrate at the age of 20 and one day wind up defense minister.
Liberman was appointed to the post just over a year ago — after Netanyahu ousted Moshe Ya’alon from the position — after his Yisrael Beytenu party entered into a coalition agreement with the ruling Likud party.
Liberman laughed at interviewer Matthew Kalman’s attempt to describe his ascension to the Defense Ministry as merely unexpected.
“You’re being politically correct,” Liberman joked. “It was a huge surprise — even for me!”