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Backing Netanyahu, Dermer pans Kushner claim ex-PM went rogue with annexation pledge

Like Likud chief, ex-Israeli envoy points to exchange of letters by 2 leaders, which purportedly saw US commit to backing move, but the memos were more complicated than that

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd from right) meets at his Jerusalem office with the ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer (right); White House adviser Jared Kushner (center); US Ambassador David Friedman (second left); and special envoy Jason Greenblatt, on July 31, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd from right) meets at his Jerusalem office with the ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer (right); White House adviser Jared Kushner (center); US Ambassador David Friedman (second left); and special envoy Jason Greenblatt, on July 31, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Former Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer has rejected ex-White House senior adviser Jared Kushner’s claim that then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu went off-script by announcing plans to immediately annex large parts of the West Bank during the 2020 unveiling of the Trump peace plan in a move that threatened to bury the proposal upon arrival.

Dermer this week joined Netanyahu and former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman in calling into question Kushner’s account in his forthcoming book, which says Friedman told the former premier that he would have US support for the controversial move, without clearing it with anyone else in the administration.

Like Netanyahu did last week when he called Kushner’s claim “baseless,” Dermer pointed to an exchange of letters between former US president Donald Trump and Netanyahu and insisted that they included a US commitment to back Israeli plans to annex 30% of the West Bank in exchange for the Israeli leader agreeing to support the Trump peace plan.

Dermer was speaking Wednesday on a podcast produced by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.

Dermer did not reveal the exact wording of the letters, but two sources familiar with them told The Times of Israel that they also included several conditions Israel had to meet in order to receive US backing for annexation. One of them required Israel “formally adopting detailed territorial plans” consistent with the peace plan’s conceptual map, whereby Jerusalem would agree not to expand settlements in areas of the West Bank delineated by the proposal as part of the future Palestinian state.

Netanyahu had not made any “formal adoption” of the peace plan when he declared during its January 28, 2020 unveiling ceremony at the White House that Israel would imminently be applying its sovereignty to all West Bank settlements along with the Jordan Valley.

Shortly after the Tuesday ceremony, Netanyahu told reporters that he would be bringing the annexation proposal to the cabinet for its approval at the very next meeting five days later, which would have given him very little time to also pass the formal adoption of the peace plan. He didn’t mention the requirement of formally adopting the peace plan, which was highly unpopular with most settler leaders — a key component of Netanyahu’s political base — who refused to accept the proposal’s envisioning of the creation of a semi-contiguous, semi-sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Kushner in his book makes clear that Netanyahu’s speech at the unveiling ceremony was not how he had drawn things up. The president’s senior aide and son-in-law felt Netanyahu’s address “misrepresented our plan” so badly that he found himself “grabb[ing] my chair so intensely that my knuckles turned white.”

US President Donald Trump, left, listens as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, January 28, 2020, to announce the Trump administration’s much-anticipated plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

“Under our plan, we would eventually recognize Israel’s sovereignty over agreed­ upon areas if Israel took steps to advance Palestinian statehood within the territory we outlined,” Kushner wrote, insisting that US approval of Israeli annexation would take time and was not a foregone conclusion.

Trump too was furious and told Kushner afterward, “Bibi gave a campaign speech. I feel dirty,” according to the ex-White House senior adviser’s memoir, which revealed that the former president was so mad at Netanyahu he considered endorsing his rival Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz in the next election.

Kushner made no mention of the letters, which Dermer argued on Wednesday would have cleared up the entire ordeal.

Speaking on the Jinsa podcast Dermer said, “if Trump was surprised [by the annexation announcement], he shouldn’t have been surprised because he should have been informed of what he was signing.”

“In those letters, it is clear that the US is going to back Israel’s move to apply its laws to the territory that the Trump plan designated as part of Israel in the future — which is 30% of the territory of Judea and Samaria. And Israel, in exchange, would embrace the Trump peace plan, which ultimately calls for a two-state solution, and also contort its policies so that the territory that would be designated for a future Palestinian state would basically be left untouched for a minimum of four years,”
Dermer said, without specifying the requirement of formally adopting the plan or possibly bringing it before the Knesset.

“It was also clear in Netanyahu’s response [letter] to President Trump that he was going to move forward with this decision… in the coming days,” Dermer added.

A close-up of the Trump administration’s ‘Vision for Peace Conceptual Map,’ published on January 28, 2020.

“Jared knows that letter and he read both of those letters clearly, so why he would think anything else? You’d have to ask him,” said Kushner.

“Trump signed the letter, and that was the basis for Netanyahu to come to Washington,” Dermer continued, arguing that Netanyahu would not have agreed to back the peace plan in the middle of an election campaign without getting a major carrot up front in the form of US backing for immediate annexation.

The former envoy claimed that the Trump administration went on to “backtrack” from its commitment to back annexation after the ceremony. Netanyahu still sought to move forward with the controversial move but shelved it later that year in exchange for an agreement by the UAE to normalize relations with Israel in the first of three Abraham Accords agreements brokered by the Trump administration.

Responding to Dermer’s claims, a source close to Kushner told The Times of Israel that they weren’t surprised Dermer and Netanyahu have the same account of the events leading up to the 2020 unveiling ceremony because they both relied on Friedman for their information. “That was the problem,” the source said, maintaining that Friedman had gone rogue and had not acted on the president’s behalf.

Friedman has rejected the notion that he acted independently and said last week, “Jared and I have different recollections of those hectic days. But we agree that we reconciled our differences in a manner that best served the US-Israel relationship.”

Kushner’s office declined to comment on the record to Dermer’s claims.

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