New government, same issues as Netanyahu confronts Palestinian conflict

With his new hardline government in office less than a week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday suspended a controversial initiative to bar Palestinian workers from buses carrying Israelis and reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The actions came as the European Union’s top diplomat arrived to discuss stalled peace efforts.

The Defense Ministry had imposed the bus plan only Tuesday. Under it, Palestinian laborers working inside Israel were prohibited from riding back to their homes in the West Bank on Israeli bus lines used by Jewish settlers.

The program caused an uproar as soon as it was reported by Israeli new outlets, with condemnations coming from Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, and politicians who called the move racist and immoral. Within hours, Netanyahu’s office said he had shelved the plan after speaking with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.

“These proposals are unacceptable to the prime minister,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu.

Under the plan, Palestinian laborers returning from jobs in Israel would have been required to cross into the West Bank through one of four designated checkpoints and use Palestinian public transportation to get home. Currently, the laborers board Israeli bus lines traveling to West Bank settlements, which stop near their villages and towns.

Yaalon said the new regulations, which would have significantly lengthened the travel time for the Palestinians, were meant to improve monitoring of those allowed into Israel to work, given the “sensitive security situation.”

Jewish settlers have long demanded separation on buses, complaining that they felt threatened by Palestinian passengers. Some settler representatives have accused the Palestinians of harassing Jewish women.

Welcoming the shelving of the segregation plan, Rivlin said it would have led to “an unthinkable separation between bus lines for Jews and Arabs.”

Calls for such segregation “contradict the basic principles of the State of Israel and are tantamount to declaring that that we cannot maintain a Jewish and democratic state here,” he said in a statement.

In a Facebook post, Isaac Herzog, the opposition leader and head of the center-left Zionist Union party, called the separation plan “gratuitous humiliation and a stain on the face of the state and its citizens.” He added that it would add “needless fuel to the flames of hatred of Israel in the world.”

Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli human rights lawyer who had prepared to challenge the move in Israel’s Supreme Court, called the plan a “surrender to a racist demand” and an “an affront to Jewish history and Jewish morals.”

Netanyahu froze the plan hours before he met Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief.

In a statement before their meeting, Netanyahu asserted that he was committed to peace and supported the establishment of a Palestinian state. During the close of his re-election campaign in March, Netanyahu said there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, infuriating the White House and drawing warnings of a reassessment of American policy toward Israel.

“I don’t support a one-state solution,” Netanyahu told Mogherini in public remarks. “I support the vision of two states for two peoples – a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.”