Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called off a proposed plan to segregate Palestinians from Israelis on West Bank buses, overruling his own defence minister following a flurry of criticism in an attempt to avert the first crisis of his new government.
Mr Netanyahu called defence minister Moshe Yaalon to tell him he found his proposal “unacceptable” and the two then decided to freeze the plan, an official in the prime minister’s office said.
Mr Yaalon had launched the three-month pilot programme following repeated complaints from Jewish settlers who use the buses and say Palestinian workers constitute a security threat and harass female Jewish passengers.
Thousands of Palestinians enter Israel for work each day from the West Bank and often return home on buses alongside Jewish settlers. The Palestinian labourers all have security clearance and special permits, but the proposed change would have forced them to return home through the same checkpoint they entered and prevented them from using West Bank buses alongside Israelis.
Critics derided the plan as racist and said it would harm Israel’s image, which has already been under pressure because of its continued settlement activity in the West Bank. Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 war and Palestinians want it as part of their future state.
“The separation between Palestinians and Jews on public transportation is an unnecessary humiliation and a stain on the face of the country and its citizens,” opposition leader Isaac Herzog wrote on his Facebook page. “It adds unnecessary oil to the bonfire of hate against Israel in the world.”
Zehava Galon, leader of the dovish Meretz party, went further, saying: “This is how apartheid looks.”
The proposal even came under fire from backers of the settlements, who said it did not promote their cause and created undue damage to Israel’s image.
Mr Netanyahu quickly reversed course amid the criticism, marking an inauspicious start for a government that took office this week and has held exactly one cabinet meeting.
Mr Netanyahu’s narrow coalition is dominated by hard-line politicians aligned with the West Bank settler movement. In particular, the heavily pro-settler Jewish Home party managed to drive a tough bargain during coalition negotiations – with party members securing appointments as education minister, agriculture minister, justice minister and deputy defence minister.
Their support for further settlement construction, and their opposition to peacemaking with the Palestinians, has set the stage for likely clashes between Israel and its Western allies. The bus segregation plan, if implemented, would have likely drawn global comparisons to both South African apartheid and the racial segregation on buses that sparked the American civil rights movement.
Israel’s largely ceremonial president, Reuven Rivlin, commended the reversal of course, saying that such separation between Israelis and Arabs would be “unthinkable”.
“Such statements go against the very foundations of the state of Israel, and impact upon our very ability to establish here a Jewish and democratic state,” he said. “It is important we remember that our sovereignty obligates us to prove our ability to live side by side.”