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Annexation currently not on the table, UK envoy Hotovely says

In first appearance with her Emirati and Bahraini colleagues, settlement advocate-turned diplomat says Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to be ‘solved by direct dialogue’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Likud supporters hold flags near then-minister of Diaspora Affairs Tzipi Hotovely at a demonstration demanding Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, February 27, 2020 (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Likud supporters hold flags near then-minister of Diaspora Affairs Tzipi Hotovely at a demonstration demanding Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, February 27, 2020 (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The annexation of parts of the West Bank is not currently on the agenda, Israeli Ambassador to the UK Tzipi Hotovely said Wednesday during a first public appearance with her counterparts from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

During a webinar about the so-called Abraham Accords between those countries and Israel, the moderator asked Mansoor Abulhoul and Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohamed bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, the Emirati and Bahraini envoys to London, respectively, if an Israeli annexation would damage their countries’ diplomatic ties with Jerusalem.

Before any of them could answer, Hotovely replied: “I think we should discuss that when it will be on the diplomatic table. It’s not.”

The moderator, veteran UK journalist and politician Lord Daniel Finkelstein, accepted that reply and moved on to other questions.

Hotovely, a former lawmaker for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, drew notice as one of Israel’s most prominent champions of the settlement movement. She was one of the first lawmakers to advocate for the annexation of the entire West Bank.

Before she arrived in Britain to assume the ambassador post last month, she served as minister for settlement affairs, a position in which she continued to endorse plans to unilaterally apply sovereignty over large parts of the West Bank.

Parts of Israel’s far-right are calling on Netanyahu to advance the annexation of at least parts of the West Bank before US President Donald Trump leaves the White House on January 20, as his successor, Joe Biden, is expected to block any such moves.

Until August, Netanyahu had been vowing to unilaterally apply sovereignty over the entire Jordan Valley and all settlements across the West Bank, as envisioned by the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan the White House published earlier this year. But he agreed to temporarily suspend the plan as part of a US-brokered deal that saw the UAE fully normalize diplomatic relations with Israel.

During the 75-minute webinar, hosted by the London-based Anglo-Israel Association, Hotovely did not otherwise address the issue of sovereignty. Her colleague from Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, cited several times the suspension of Netanyahu’s annexation bid in exchange for his government agreeing to normalize relations with Israel.

“We’re determined to usher [in] a new era of peace in the Middle East. That is the urgent demand of our young people, who according to all opinion polls want to live in a functioning, stable and prosperous region,” Abulhoul said. “The decades of not talking to each other did not service the cause of peace. Already, we have seen how engagement with Israel allowed us to take the issue of annexation off the table — that preserved the two-state solution as a viable option.”

The UAE’s commitment to the Palestinian cause remains firm, he stressed. “We still believe it is essential to help end this tragic dispute; that means a just settlement based on a two-state solution.”

The UAE never said that the accords are a substitute for restarting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Abulhoul said. “Those talks of course have to come back, and progress on the matter must derive from direct dialogue between the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves. But certainly the accords will allow us to push for that outcome from our much more powerful position.”

The Israeli-Palestinian should be solved by direct dialogue

Historically, it has been Arab states with diplomatic ties to Israel — Egypt and Jordan — that had the biggest influence over the Middle East peace process, he posited.

“Once Palestinians will recognize the tangible benefits that have come from suspension of annexation [they] will come to understand and appreciate that countries that have a functioning relationship will have leverage and will be in a better place to help and support the Palestinians in coming years. But they must of course decide how they want us to help them.”

Hotovely concurred. “You will be surprised I agree with Ambassador Mansour about the fact that [the Israeli-Palestinian] should be solved by direct dialogue,” she said.

The international community needs to realize that neither the United Nations nor any other multilateral forum can solve the issue on behalf of the two sides, as long as the Palestinians refuse to negotiate with Israel, she added.

Al-Khalifa, the Bahraini ambassador, also emphasized his government’s abiding commitment to the Palestinian cause. The Abraham Accords are the path to a better future for the entire Middle East, but “at the heart of this must be a resolution of this Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one based on a two-state solution that secures the rights of the Palestinian people,” he said.

All three ambassadors went to considerable lengths to highlight the positive aspects of the Abraham Accords and the dividends they each expect from their respective normalization agreements, stressing the rapid speed in which former enemies have become friends.

“We are determined to build a warm peace. We want a deep relationship accompanying all aspects of national life. That means people-to-people contacts at all levels,” Abulhoul said.

Hotovely certified that the new partnership amounts to a “warm peace,” adding that it symbolizes “a real shift in the region.”

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