Ahead of Pompeo trip, US official says annexation can wait until after July 1

Senior staffer says timetable ‘isn’t rigid’ for US, message passed to Israeli officials, warns Palestinians of ‘negative consequences’ if they sit out peace talks

Illustrative: Annexation backers march in the West Bank south of Jerusalem on February 27, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/ Flash90)
Illustrative: Annexation backers march in the West Bank south of Jerusalem on February 27, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/ Flash90)

A senior US official indicated that Israel could consider delaying a controversial push to annex parts of the West Bank, according to a Hebrew-language report Tuesday.

The official, who spoke to Channel 13 news on condition of anonymity, said July 1, when the country’s nascent coalition agreed it could kick off the annexation drive, “is not a sacred date” for the United States.

The official said the message had been passed to Israeli officials.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is slated to visit Israel Wednesday and is expected to discuss annexation, among other topics, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and incoming defense minister Benny Gantz.

According to a coalition agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz setting up the power-sharing government, legislation on annexing settlements and the Jordan Valley in line with the Donald Trump administration’s peace plan can only begin on July 1. The government is set to be sworn in on Thursday.

A joint Israeli-US team has been set up to demarcate the borders of possible annexation moves, though its work has been slowed by the coronavirus, which has seen Israel ban the entry of foreigners and the US evacuate some diplomatic staff.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on April 29, 2018. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

David Schenker, head of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in the State Department, said last week that the mapping committee had not yet completed its work.

The official told Channel 13 news that the Trump administration is not quite ready to deal with annexation as it copes with the coronavirus outbreak and other issues.

“The timetable of the Israelis isn’t rigid for us,” the official said.

The official also warned the Palestinians of unspecified “negative consequences” if they don’t engage in peace talks with Israel.

“If the Palestinians continue to sit on the side and don’t come to negotiate there will be negative consequences for them and it will make it easier for us to make decisions concerning Israeli annexation,” the official said.

Pompeo said last month that annexation was an Israeli decision, in remarks widely viewed as tacit support for a unilateral Israeli move. But officials in Washington have seemingly sent mixed messages about the administration’s support for such a move, with some reports suggesting that US support could be conditioned on Israel backing a Palestinian state under the contours of the peace proposal.

In an interview with the pro-settlement Israel Hayom daily published Tuesday, Pompeo said he would “share” US views with Israeli leaders on how best to implement the Trump peace plan, including the annexation of West Bank territory, during his single-day visit.

But he refused to confirm or deny reports in Israel that the White House was asking Israel to delay any annexation move in the West Bank and if it had given Jerusalem a “green light.”

A view of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement in the West Bank, January 28, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Annexation advocates believe they have a narrow window to redraw the Mideast map before November’s US presidential election. They also believe it would give US President Donald Trump a boost with pro-Israel voters, particularly the politically influential evangelical Christian community.

The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has said he opposes unilateral moves by Israel in keeping with what had been decades of US policy prior to Trump.

Under the coalition deal, the government is to be defined as an “emergency” body for its first six months, tasked exclusively with combating the coronavirus. But the coalition agreement also permits Netanyahu to introduce a West Bank annexation proposal to the government after July 1, even if Gantz objects.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points at a map of the Jordan Valley as he gives a statement, promising to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area, in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The coalition agreement says that any step toward annexation must be coordinated with the US while also keeping regional stability and peace agreements in consideration.

Netanyahu’s plan to annex portions of the West Bank has been met with harsh criticism from nearly the entire international community, including Washington’s European allies and key Arab partners.

Trump’s peace plan allows for the possibility of US recognition of such annexations provided Israel agrees to negotiate under the framework of the proposal.

The peace plan, which has been rejected by the Palestinians, envisions a Palestinian state in Gaza and a chunk of the West Bank pockmarked with Israeli enclaves housing settlements and a network of roads connecting them. The Jordan Valley, a strategic strip of land linking the West Bank to Jordan, would also remain in Israeli hands.

Critics say the resulting Palestinian rump state would be unsustainable as a contiguous political entity, and settler leaders have also rejected the plan for allowing any form of Palestinian statehood.

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