JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Hosting the German foreign minister this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used an especially tainted term to condemn the Palestinian demand that Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank be removed.
“Judea and Samaria cannot be Judenrein,” a Netanyahu confidant quoted him as telling Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Asked how Germany’s top diplomat responded to hearing the Nazi Holocaust term for areas “cleansed of Jews,” the confidant said, “What could he do? He basically just nodded.”
Protocol might have indicated that a representative of the country that carried out the World War Two genocide, and which has since made much effort to atone, be spared such invocations.
But these are not normal times for the right-wing Netanyahu coalition. It faces unprecedented U.S. pressure to make way for a Palestinian state on West Bank land that many Jews call Judea and Samaria and consider their eternal, biblical birthright.
Hence the jaw-dropper defiance of “Judenrein,” which the confidant said Netanyahu had encouraged cabinet colleagues to deploy in their defense of the settlements and of Israel’s insistence that Palestinians recognize it as a Jewish state.
Briefing foreign reporters last week, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, a stalwart of Netanyahu’s Likud party, urged them to ask whether “Palestinians would accept that Jews will live among them, or whether it is going to be totally not allowed.”
“‘Judenrein’ is the term that was once used in other countries,” Meridor said darkly, in remarks echoed the next day by another Likud minister who briefed journalists and diplomats.
Some diplomats have quietly questioned the propriety of applying such comparisons to a Middle East conflict which is a unique mix of race and religion, conquest and coexistence.
German officials made no comment on the terminology.
The Palestinians, for their part, see a rhetorical ruse by an Israeli leadership which has shown little appetite for entering negotiations on a two-state peace accord.
“We believe that this is simply a new strategy by Israel to delay any real outcome,” said Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestinian diplomat. “In past negotiations, I can assure you, Israel never tried to have Jews remain in the state of Palestine.”
Challenged over the West Bank settlers’ prospective status, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was quoted this week telling the Ideas Festival in Aspen that “Jews, to the extent they choose to stay and live in the state of Palestine, will enjoy those rights and certainly will not enjoy any less rights than Israeli Arabs enjoy now in the state of Israel.”
Abu Eid said Palestinian jurists had yet to examine how settlers could become citizens. Nor is it clear how Fayyad’s Palestinian Authority can claim to set long-term policy given its feud with the hardline Hamas Islamists who control Gaza.
Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and veteran Likud member, voiced misgivings about the use of “Judenrein” in the Palestine context: “I don’t like to transfer the trappings of Nazis to others, even if they are our enemies.”
What was being branded as the Palestinians’ bigotry, he said, could also be prudence about steps that might pre-judge disputes such as those over Palestinian refugees from Israel.
An Israeli diplomat suggested that Netanyahu, in adopting harsh language such as “Judenrein,” aimed to mollify hawks in his coalition government over his agreement in principle to see the eventual establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state.
“Netanyahu has done what was long considered unthinkable for a Likud leader,” the diplomat said.
“So now he has to talk tough.”
Editing by Louise Ireland and Alastair Macdonald