As annexation start date comes and goes, Netanyahu presses on with US talks

Prime minister calls meeting with top security officials, plans more discussions in coming days on extension of sovereignty to parts of West Bank

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a face mask against COVID-19, bearing the US and Israeli flags, during a press conference with US special representative for Iran (not seen) at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 30, 2020. (Abir Sultan/POOL/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a face mask against COVID-19, bearing the US and Israeli flags, during a press conference with US special representative for Iran (not seen) at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 30, 2020. (Abir Sultan/POOL/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will continue to discuss a possible annexation of parts of the West Bank with the US administration, his office said in a statement Wednesday, the target day the premier had set to begin the contentious process.

At the same time, Netanyahu convened top Israeli security brass, including National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat on Wednesday, to discuss the issue, the statement said.

“In the coming days there will be additional discussions,” it added.

The statement came amid uncertainty over whether Israel will ultimately follow through on the explosive annexation initiative, which has drawn fierce condemnations from some of Israel’s closest allies.

Earlier, MK Ofir Akunis confirmed to Army Radio that the annexation process would not begin on Wednesday, saying that officials were still working out the final details with their American counterparts. He said he expected the annexation to take place later in July.

“Coordination with the American administration is not something that can be dismissed,” said Akunis who under the unity government deal is expected to become minister for regional cooperation at the end of the year.

Then-Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis arrives for an emergency meeting about the coronavirus at the Health Ministry in Tel Aviv on February 23, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu had aimed to start the process by July 1, saying he wanted to begin annexing West Bank territory in line with US President Donald Trump’s Mideast plan. The plan, unveiled in January, envisions bringing some 30 percent of the territory — covering all 132 settlements, home to 450,000 Israelis, and the strategic Jordan Valley — under permanent Israeli control, while conditionally giving the Palestinians statehood in the remaining West Bank land and additional territory inside Israel.

But Netanyahu’s unilateral annexation project has come under stiff international criticism. The United Nations, European Union and key Arab countries have all said Israel’s annexation would violate international law and undermine the already diminished prospects of establishing a viable independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Even close allies, like Britain, have opposed it.

The Palestinians, who seek all of the West Bank as part of a future state, have rejected the Trump plan.

Israel has never tried to annex West Bank territory before, saying the area is “disputed” and that its final status should be settled through negotiations.

View of the Jordan Valley in the West Bank on June 17, 2020. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

Netanyahu has defended his annexation plan on both security and religious grounds and says the friendly Trump administration has provided a rare opportunity to redraw Israel’s borders. He is eager to move forward before November’s US presidential election, especially with Trump’s reelection prospects in question, and made sure that the coalition agreement for his new government included the July 1 date for him to introduce a plan to parliament.

The coalition deal, however, also specifies that agreement must “be reached with the United States on the application of sovereignty,” and US officials held a series of meetings at the White House last week without publishing any decision on the matter.

Beyond international opposition, Netanyahu has encountered resistance from his Blue and White governing partners. Blue and White’s leader, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, this week said Wednesday’s target date was not “sacred” and suggested that annexation can wait while the government grapples with Israel’s coronavirus crisis. On Tuesday, Gantz said the Trump plan needs to be advanced “correctly, in bringing as many partners to this discussion from the countries of the region, with international backing.” He added: [We must] make every effort to connect with them and only then continue. And I think all the means to bring in the players have not yet been exhausted.”

US officials have indicated they do not want to move forward with a plan unless the two leaders are in agreement. Hebrew media reported Tuesday that Israel is seeking changes in a proposed US map for annexation, and that American officials are demanding an Israeli gesture to the Palestinians as compensation for any annexation that takes place.

Netanyahu met on Tuesday with US Ambassador David Friedman and visiting White House peace envoy Avi Berkowitz.

The Times of Israel reported on June 3 that the US administration was “highly unlikely” to approve an Israeli move to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank by the July 1 date.

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