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September 15, 2014

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Israeli official: Palestine should allow settlers

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes that all Jewish settlers should have the right to remain in their homes in a future Palestine, an official in his office said Sunday, offering a novel approach to one of the stickiest issues in Mideast peace talks.

In years of negotiations, it has been assumed that any Jewish settlers not inside Israeli territory under a future peace deal would have to be removed. But Netanyahu believes there is no reason for a future Palestinian state to be "ethnically cleansed," the official said.

The comments expanded on Netanyahu's comments over the weekend in Davos, Switzerland, where he told reporters at the World Economic Forum that he did not intend to uproot any Israelis in a peace deal.

More than 500,000 settlers live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories that Israel captured in the 1967 war and which the Palestinians now hope will be part of their future state. East Jerusalem and the West Bank, known to religious Jews as Judea and Samaria, are parts of the biblical land of Israel. Hard-line Israelis object to ceding either area on both spiritual and security grounds.

Netanyahu already has said he wants to retain major settlement "blocs," home to the vast majority of settlers, as part of any deal. The Palestinians have signaled they would give up their claims to the lands where the blocs are located under a land swap giving them additional territory from what is now inside Israel.

But experts believe roughly 100,000 settlers live outside of these blocs, and their fate under any final peace deal is unclear. Many of these settlers likely would evacuate their homes in return for fair compensation. Others, however, are deeply ideological and would resist any forcible eviction.

The Israeli official said Netanyahu believes there is no reason to uproot them against their will.

"The prime minister believes that in peace, just as Israel has an Arab minority, there is no logical reason why the Palestinian state could not contain a Jewish minority and that Jews living in Judea and Samaria would be given the option to stay," he said. "It should not be accepted a priori that in peace the Palestinian state must be ethnically cleansed."

The Israeli official spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue remained under discussion and hadn't been formally accepted as policy by the government.

The Palestinians consider settlements built beyond the 1967 borders to be illegal land grabs and rejected the idea of incorporating them in a future state.

"Anyone who says he wants to keep settlers in the Palestinian state is actually saying that he doesn't want a Palestinian state," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. "No settler will be allowed to stay in the Palestinian state, not even a single one, because settlements are illegal and the presence of the settlers on the occupied lands is illegal."

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