Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Center for American Progress head Neera Tanden on Tuesday as part of his latest visit to the United States, during which he’s attempting to appeal to both conservatives and progressives. In a wide-ranging forum, the hawkish prime minister invoked several of his favorite claims about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
ThinkProgress, an editorially independent news site affiliated with the Center for American Progress, fact-checked his discussion with Tanden and found a number of false claims.
1. Settlements aren’t a core issue affecting the peace process.
CLAIM: Netanyahu claimed that the settlements are not a “core issue” in the stalled peace talks. He defended the statement by dating the violence between Arabs and Jews in the area to a time before the settlements existed. “This is 50 years, 47 years, from 1920–1967. Half a century. What’s the problem? … It can’t be the territories because there weren’t any.”
FACT: The United Nations, along with most of the world, considers Jewish settlements built on territory that Israel captured in 1967 to be illegal. This summer, the Palestinians presented documents to the International Criminal Court to investigate their continued construction as a war crime. The United States government — in both Republican and Democrat administrations — has also repeatedly insisted that settlement expansion hurts the peace process. In fact, when peace talks failed in 2014, a U.S. State Department official who led the talks said that Netanyahu’s policy regarding settlements has a “dramatically damaging impact.”
2. No new settlements have been built for two decades.
CLAIM: Netanyahu frequently says that no new settlements have been approved in the past 20 years, and repeated this claim on Tuesday.
FACT: The 20 years claim holds up only by using superficial definitions of “settlements.” The government has long given settlers a long leash by allowing new construction in the vicinity of older settlements to be defined as “neighborhoods” and “outposts” when they are, in practice, new settlements, sometimes on Palestinians’ private land. In fact, the American Religious Right has bankrolled settlement construction, as ThinkProgress’ Jack Jenkins has reported.
Settlement unit construction has continued steadily throughout the past decade despite Netanyahu’s claim that “there have been no new settlements built in the last 20 years.” Last year, as Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to broker a peace, Netanyahu’s government endorsed 13,851 new settlement housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — four times the amount of previous years.
3. Israel gave Gaza completely to the Palestinians.
CLAIM: Netanyahu claimed that Israel “took away all the settlements, took them apart” and “even disinterred people from their graves” in Gaza.
FACT: While Israel did withdraw its settlements from Gaza, it still retains control over Gaza’s airspace, sea shore, and the Kerem Shalom and Erez border crossings. The Israeli government has routinely shut down those two border crossings, citing safety concerns. International humanitarian groups warn that the constant closures cut off Gaza from humanitarian aid and has created an economic catastrophe for Palestinians.
4. Palestinians name public squares after murderers, but Israelis don’t.
CLAIM: The prime minister argued that Palestinians celebrate terrorists while Israelis do not. “We do not name our public squares after mass murderers,” he told Tanden. “On the few occasions we have had mass murderers like Goldstein, we condemned it, from the right to the left. But the public square — is named after a killer who murdered hundreds of innocent Jews. There is a difference in values. They glorify these people. We do not.”
FACT: As the Jewish Daily Forward has pointed out, Netanyahu is overlooking several streets in Jerusalem named after Israeli assassins and freedom fighters. “Nearly all the streets in East Talpiot are named after Jews convicted and hanged as terrorists by the British before 1948,” J.J. Goldberg writes. That’s because those labeled terrorists are often celebrated as heroes once a country has won its independence.
The commemoration is not limited to Jerusalem. Goldberg points out: “Elsewhere in Israel are streets named for Hirsh Lekert, hanged in Vilna in 1902 for trying to assassinate the tsarist governor; Sholom Schwartzbard, who confessed to assassinating Ukrainian rebel leader Simon Petlura in Paris in 1926, but was acquitted by a French jury.”
5. Settlements make up just a tiny fraction of land.
CLAIM: Netanyahu insisted that settlement construction has made up a tiny “fraction” of built up land and is restricted to “existing communities.” He repeated a common claim, saying, “the addition, if you look over time, it is maybe a fraction, maybe 1/10th of 1 percent.”
FACT: Though technically settlements’ built up land makes up 1 percent of the West Bank, settlers’ control spreads far beyond that. As J Street points out, about ten percent of the West Bank is included in the “municipal area,” and all in all, 40 percent of the land has been rendered off-limits to Palestinians “regardless of the fact that only a small portion of this land has been built on by settlers.” Furthermore, the government has built roads to settlements over hundreds of kilometers that further eats into Palestinian territory.
6. Palestinians won’t recognize Israel.
CLAIM: The prime minister told Tanden that he’s still waiting for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — also called Abu Mazen — to recognize Israel. “When I say to Abu Mazen, for God’s sake, recognize the Jewish state already, as I recognize the Palestinian state, and for God’s sake, let’s talk about long-term security arrangements, so we have those two acres for real peace,” he said. “He will not do it.”
FACT: The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) formally recognized the State of Israel in 1993 and Palestinian leaders have previously conceded that Israel is, in fact, a home for Jewish people. A 2003 blueprint for a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement agreed to by the Palestinians, states, “parties recognize Palestine and Israel as the homelands of their respective peoples.” Similarly, in 2004, the late Yasir Arafat replied “definitely” when asked by the Israeli paper Haaretz if Israel “had to remain a Jewish State.”
But the official demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a homeland for Jews did not crop up in peace talks until 2007, and Netanyahu did not make it a central demand until 2009 — leading some observers to interpret the move as an effort to slow down the talks. Most recently, Abbas has refused to “accept the Jewishness of Israel,” arguing, as the New York Times sums up, that such recognition would negate “a right of return for Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war and their descendants” and undermine “the status of the Palestinian-Arab citizens who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population.”
7. All Netanyahu wants to do is talk to Palestinian leaders.
CLAIM: “My throat has become hoarse, inviting him again and again and he refuses,” the prime minister said, referring to Mahmoud Abbas. “Conversation fertilizes thought.”
FACT: After initially insisting, on the eve of his re-election, that a Palestinian state would not come to existence under his watch, Netanyahu has said that he is ready to resume talks with the goal of establishing an independent Palestine. However, he has also said that such talks would focus on which settlement areas Israel could keep and which it could expand. As one Western diplomat told Reuters in May, “[u]p until now, Netanyahu has refused to put any maps on the table, so in that respect it was quite substantial.” However, “he knows the Palestinians would never agree to begin on this basis.” Palestinians and Arab leaders have always appeared skeptical of Netanyahu’s willingness to accept Palestine as a state, pointing out that he didn’t publicly embrace the two state solution until 2009. Netanyahu also championed a “Nationality Law” enshrining Israel as a state of Jews in which “there are national rights only for the Jewish people. The move was fiercely opposed by Israel’s Arab and Christian communities as well as members of Netanyahu’s own government.
8. Violence against Palestinians is forcefully punished.
CLAIM: Netanyahu objected to Tanden’s claim that settlers’ attacks on Palestinians were treated leniently, saying, “That’s not true.” “What is illegal is illegal,” he said. “We prosecute even if somebody paints graffiti or takes down all of trees, it is a crime, but I would not put it on the same level as Duma,” referring to the recent arson attack that killed three Palestinians.
FACT: A surge of violence against Palestinians erupted recently in the West Bank, as settlers have reportedly attacked Palestinians and vandalized their homes and businesses. Yet only 1.9 percent of cases of settler violence result in prosecution.
9. Young Palestinians are terrorists.
CLAIM: “I am much more concerned on how to get to Palestinian young minds who want to disabuse these lives and to get them to accept the idea that we are going to have to live side-by-side in this small piece of land. And we we have to do it in peace and prosperity. That is a tough order,” Netanyahu said at Tuesday’s event.
FACT: Most Palestinians — including youth — appear to prefer nonviolent activism: 62 percent of people in the West Bank and 73 percent of Gazans say “popular resistance against the occupation” such as marches, demonstrations, and strikes are having a positive impact. A 2013 poll found that 73 percent of Palestinian youth in the West Bank and Gaza say they do not belong to any political faction such as Hamas, Fatah, or otherwise. In addition, a Zogby survey found 45 percent of young Palestinians desire a two-state solution, only slightly fewer than results among older generations. But even that figure is misleading: far from harbingers of violence, increasing numbers of young Palestinians are calling for a one-state solution — one where they could, in fact, live side-by-side with Israelis in the same country, and thus finally be afforded rights regularly denied to them under Israeli occupation.
10. LGBT rights aren’t threatened in Israel.
CLAIM: Tanden praised the Israeli Defense Forces for being inclusive of women and LGBT soldiers, asking Netanyahu what the U.S. could learn from Israel on that front. Netanyahu insinuated that LGBT rights are not necessarily infringed upon, replying, “You have ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ We have, ‘we don’t care.’”
FACT: LGBT rights are still suppressed in Israeli society. In fact, Netanyahu’s government shot down a slew of bills this year intended to expand LGBT rights, including one that would have legalized same-sex marriage and another that would protect Israelis from being discriminated against on the basis of their identity or sexual orientation. A member of his own coalition, MK Bezalel Smotrich, organized an anti-gay rally in 2006, a year after several people were stabbed at a Pride parade. Smotrich’s rally was intended to protest the Pride parade in Jerusalem, which he called “the beast parade.”
This post has been updated to more accurately reflect J.J. Goldberg’s argument.