Netanyahu calls Gaza withdrawal 'a mistake'

Opinions divided over Israeli prime minister's comments on territory as US pushes to find solution to the Arab-Israeli problem.

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Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, yesterday said the withdrawal of nearly 9,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip four years ago was a mistake, bringing mixed reaction from Middle East experts on the significance of his comments to relations with the United States and the peace process.

"We can only conduct genuine introspection and say that the unilateral evacuation from the Gaza Strip brought neither peace nor security," Mr Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting yesterday in Jerusalem, according to a transcript e-mailed by his office to news agencies. "We will not repeat this mistake." Mr Netanyahu, who quit as finance minister a week before the Gaza withdrawal started in August 2005, under the government of then prime minister Ariel Sharon, said yesterday that agreements that involve ceding territory from now on will require "genuine recognition of Israel" and "security arrangements that can be enforced".

Israel had controlled the Gaza Strip, which is home to about 1.3 million Palestinians, for 38 years before the withdrawal. "Netanyahu's remarks should be viewed as part of the Israeli and Palestinian consensus against unilateralism. It enabled militants to claim credit without reciprocal concessions. [The] remarks should not be viewed as opposing agreed withdrawal as a part of a peace agreement," David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy, a policy think tank, said in an e-mail yesterday.

US President Barack Obama has been pressuring Israel to freeze housing construction at settlements in the West Bank. While Mr Netanyahu has promised not to build new settlements, he has refused to halt construction of homes in existing settlements.

"We will not evict any more people from their homes," the Israeli prime minister said yesterday. Israel began a three-week military offensive against Hamas in Gaza last December aimed at stopping the firing of rockets by Hamas at towns in southern Israel. More than 1,400 Gaza residents were killed in the conflict in which 13 Israelis also died. "Gaza became a Hamas base under Iranian control from which thousands of missiles have been fired, including in the last campaign," Mr Netanyahu said yesterday. "In short, this did not bring peace."

Daniel Levy, a senior fellow and co-director of the Middle East Initiative at the New America Foundation in Washington, believes Mr Netanyahu's comments were "more about the internal political conversation in Israel than a message directed at the US - with one possible caveat. Remember, this is Netanyahu the leader of the Likud old rump party which rejected Sharon's unilateral Gaza evacuation ? This is playing to his own party and ministers, which is exceedingly hardline, and to his base and his rightist coalition allies.

"This is also a big part of the 'I was proved right' [Netanyahu] narrative - 'I ... said leaving Gaza would create a terror base, rockets on Ashkelon et cetera. It all came to pass so, support me today when I am placing my conditions on any progress with the Palestinians, on security, Palestinian recognition, et cetera.' "In that respect I think the unilateral evacuation was designed - intentionally in many ways - to fail, that is to not be a model for the West Bank. So in that respect Netanyahu is echoing a storyline that is widely held in Israel ... My one caveat is this - there is some talk of doing borders, getting a pullback and partial evacuation on the West Bank, perhaps to the separation barrier ... So this might be in part a pre-emptive attack by [Mr Netanyahu] against these options."

Mr Netanyahu said he would tour some of the areas today in which the Gaza settlers have been living since the evacuation. "We must take greater action and soon in order to complete dealing with our brothers whose lives were destroyed," Mr Netanyahu said yesterday. "This means financial and social rehabilitation, rehabilitation in every sense of the word." "There is also a feeling among the Israeli Right of how mismanaged the resettling of the Gaza settlers was, so [Mr Netanyahu] is playing to that as well," Mr Levy said. "I do not think this has new implications for the peace process."

Mr Netanyahu "is just further entrenching and justifying his conditions and those conditions mean that either you get a very assertive American peace effort at some time [months to a year from now] with a detailed plan for implementing two states, or this is not just stuck but starts to further deteriorate. "In that respect [Mr Netanyahu] is challenging the Obama administration to call his bluff and up the ante." * With additional reporting by Bloomberg and Agence France-Presse