Netanyahu: Settlement Blocs Part of Israel

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JERUSALEM, Israel - In two tree-planting ceremonies for the upcoming holiday of Tu B'Shvat - the New Year of the Trees - Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said "major settlement blocs" will always be part of the State of Israel.

This year, Tu B'Shvat falls on Shabbat (the Sabbath) so Israelis are planting trees the week before.

Sunday's ceremonies took place in Ma'ale Adumim, a suburb of Jerusalem with a population of 37,000, and Kibbutz Kfar Etzion in the Gush Etzion enclave.

Later this week, the prime minister will plant a tree in Ariel, a city in Samaria with a population of more than 20,000 residents and 10,000 university students.

"Our message is clear: We are planting here, we will stay here, we will build here, this place will be an inseparable part of the State of Israel for eternity," Netanyahu said at Kibbutz Kfar. "This is an idea that is accepted by the majority of Israelis," he said.

In Ma'ale Adumim, the prime minister said, "We will build here as part of greater Jerusalem."

"I came here from Gush Etzion, which is Jerusalem's southern gate," Netanyahu said. "Now we're in Ma'ale Adumim, which is Jerusalem's eastern gate," he said.

Shaul Goldstein, chairman of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, called the prime minister's remarks "a very clear statement to the world."

"His statements were very powerful and meaningful - that we are going to stay here forever," Goldstein said.

At Sunday morning's cabinet meeting, the prime minister encouraged ministers "to go and plant trees in various parts of our country."

"I will leave this morning for Gush Etzion and Ma'ale Adumim to plant trees for Tu B'Shvat. We are in the week before Tu B'Shvat. I will also soon go to Ariel. Ariel is where we have now planted a university center, but we will also plant trees there," Netanyahu said.

"I think this expresses the unity that exists among the people regarding the importance that these places will always remain part of Israel," he said.

"I am confident that my ministerial colleagues share this view. I encourage them and all MKs [members of Knesset] to go and plant in the various parts of our country," he concluded.

Palestinian officials denounced Netanyahu's statements, though his position is the same as previous administrations regarding major Israeli cities and settlement blocs.

"This is an unacceptable act that destroys all the efforts being exerted by Senator Mitchell in order to bring the parties back to the negotiating table," said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

The tree-planting ceremonies took place a few hours after Obama administration special Mideast envoy George Mitchell left Israel for visits to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

While in Israel, Mitchell met with Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and with Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Netanyahu said he was encouraged by some "interesting ideas" Mitchell shared with him.

"I met this morning with [former] Senator George Mitchell and conveyed to him the appreciation that I and the government of Israel feel for him and for President Obama for their continuing efforts to progress the diplomatic process.

"Today, I heard some interesting ideas for resuming the process.  We are very much interested in doing so, and I expressed my hope that these ideas bring this about.  Certainly, if the Palestinians express similar willingness, we will find ourselves in a diplomatic process, something important to both them and us, and to anyone that strives to advance peace and reconciliation in our region," Netanyahu told cabinet ministers.

Mitchell was unable to convince PA officials to return to negotiations.

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The Jerusalem Post contributed to this report. 

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