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Netanyahu says don’t get ‘hung up’ on peace with Palestinians first

Benjamin Netanyahu talks with CNN's Jake Tapper. (CNN Photo)

(CNN) — Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said people can get “hung up” on peace negotiations with the Palestinians, saying he has opted for a different approach in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday.

“When effectively the Arab-Israeli conflict (comes) to an end, I think we’ll circle back to the Palestinians and get a workable peace with the Palestinians,” he said.

Asked by Tapper about the Biden administration’s concerns that settlements in the occupied West Bank could exacerbate tensions, Netanyahu pointed to the success of the Trump-era Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries.

“I went around them (Palestinians), I went directly to the Arab states and forged with a new concept of peace… I forged four historic peace agreements, the Abraham Accords, which is twice the number of peace agreements that all my predecessors in 70 years got combined.”

His comments come at a tense moment for Israel. Palestinians and Israelis have suffered terrible bloodshed in the past week, and fears are growing that the situation will spiral out of control. Last Thursday was the deadliest day for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank in nearly two years, followed by a shooting near a Jerusalem synagogue Friday night — which Israel has deemed one of its worst terror attacks in recent years.

The Biden administration has advocated for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but there has been very little movement and seemingly few active efforts toward that goal by Netanyahu or Palestinian leaders.

Analysts say the Abraham Accords have also done little to moderate Israel’s position on the Palestinians. When asked what concession Israel would grant Palestinian territories, Netanyahu responded: “Well, I’m certainly willing to have them have all the powers that they need to govern themselves. But none of the powers that could threaten (us) and this means that Israel should have the overriding security responsibility.”

There are hopes that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Israel and the West Bank this week would help cool rising tensions.

But both administrations appear to be on opposite sides of the coin when it comes to Israeli settlements. Netanyahu vowed this week that Israel would “strengthen” settlements in response to shooting attacks in Jerusalem, a position Blinken cautioned against on Tuesday.

When asked about US concerns that expanding Israeli settlements on Palestinian land could hamper peace prospects, Netanyahu said: “Well, I totally disagree.”

Complicated relations

Biden and Netanyahu have a complicated relationship, especially over Iran. Netanyahu clashed with former US President Barack Obama over negotiations with the Palestinians, then again more openly over the Iran nuclear deal — which Biden would like to re-enter.

Netanyahu explained his position on Iran to Tapper, saying, “If you have rogue regimes that are (intending to get) nuclear weapons, you can sign 100 agreements with them, it doesn’t help.”

“I think the only way that you can stop or abstain from getting nuclear weapons is a combination of crippling economic sanctions, but the most important thing, is a credible military threat,” he said.

Iran has said its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes and that it formally halted its weapons program, but US officials warned Iran’s uranium enrichment activities have gone far beyond the parameters of the failed 2015 nuclear deal since former US President Trump exited it. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency chief warned that Tehran has amassed enough material for “several nuclear weapons” and urged diplomatic efforts to restart to prevent such a scenario.

Another point of contention among among US allies has been Israel’s ambivalent stance on Ukraine. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Israel has been performing a diplomatic balancing act in relations with Moscow.

Although it has officially condemned the invasion and regularly sends aid to Ukraine, Israel has yet to send the Ukrainians weapons, and has been criticized for not being more forceful in its criticism of Russia.

Israel does not want to upset Russia when the Israeli air force is looking to hit targets across the border in Syria. Israel has launched hundreds of strikes against its neighbor in recent years, mostly aimed at disrupting Iran’s supply of precision-guided missile technology to Hezbollah.

Netanyahu referenced this complicated scenario to Tapper, adding that Israel has been “taking action against certain weapons development” in Iran. He however refused to confirm or deny whether Israel was behind drone attacks at a military plant in Iran’s central city of Isfahan over the weekend.

“I never talk about specific operations… and every time some explosion takes place in the Middle East, Israel is blamed or given responsibility — sometimes we are sometimes we’re not.”

Most right-wing cabinet

The wide-ranging interview touched on concerns about Netanyahu’s cabinet, described as the most far right and religious in the country’s history, which has already faced internal tensions and widespread public protests.

Netanyahu’s governing coalition relies on the support of a number of nationalist political figures once consigned to the fringes of Israeli politics.

Netanyahu dismissed concerns about the inflammatory rhetoric and actions of these members, saying: “I’ve got my two hands on the wheel.”

Pressed on some of those extreme statements — including reports that Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich described himself as a “fascist homophobe” — Netanyahu said: “Well, a lot of people say a lot of things when they’re not in power. They sort of temper themselves when they get into power. And that’s certainly the case here.”

Netanyahu accused critics of hypocrisy and not holding a similar lens against his predecessors, while adding: “Look, I’m controlling the government, and I’m responsible for its policies, and the policies are sensible, and responsible, and continue to be that.”

The six-time prime minister also rejected criticism of his government’s push for judicial reforms, that would give parliament (and by extension the parties in power) the ability to overturn supreme court rulings, appoint judges, and remove from ministries legal advisers whose legal advice is binding.

This comes after he was forced to dismiss key ally Aryeh Deri from his ministerial posts after the High Court ruled that it was unreasonable to appoint the Shas party leader to positions in government due to his criminal convictions.

Netanyahu told Tapper that he believed the changes would “make democracy stronger.”

His country has seen ongoing demonstrations against judicial reforms, drawing tens of thousands of Israelis to the streets in January.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu continues to face charges on three separate cases in a long-running corruption trial that has dogged him politically. He has repeatedly denied all the charges against him, and has described the trial as a “witch hunt.”

When asked whether there was an truth to claims that Netanyahu was trying to override the judiciary due to his own interests, he said “that’s false. None of the reforms that we’re talking about… have anything to do with my trial.”