Clarifying, US envoy Friedman cautions Israel against ‘unilateral’ annexation

After giving green light to sovereignty over settlements following rollout of Trump peace plan, ambassador says rash move would ‘endanger’ plan

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks during the Kohelet Forum Conference at the Begin Heritage Center, in Jerusalem, on January 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks during the Kohelet Forum Conference at the Begin Heritage Center, in Jerusalem, on January 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on Sunday said that any “unilateral” Israeli decision to annex parts of the West Bank would endanger Washington’s Middle East peace plan, unveiled last month, reversing his previous stance on the matter.

Minutes after US President Donald Trump revealed details of the long-awaited plan on January 28, Friedman briefed reporters and told them “Israel does not have to wait at all” when asked whether there was a “waiting period” that would have to elapse before the country could extend sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and settlements.

“The waiting period would be the time it takes for them to obtain internal approvals and to obviously create the documentation, the calibration, the mapping, that would enable us to evaluate it, makes sure it’s consistent with the conceptual map,” he added at the time. “If they wish to apply Israeli law to those areas allocated to Israel, we will recognize it.”

However, Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner has since said the United States would not support an annexation before the March 2 Knesset elections, and that work on the move by a joint team would take at least two months. Netanyahu has subsequently nixed plans to immediately go ahead with the step.

In this photo taken on January 27, 2020, US President Donald Trump (center) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu(second left)  alongside Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer (L), US Vice President Mike Pence (C), US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (2nd R), White House adviser Jared Kushner (R) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

On Sunday, Friedman aligned himself with the administration’s updated stance.

“President Trump’s Vision for Peace is the product of more than three years of close consultations among the President, PM Netanyahu and their respective senior staff,” he tweeted.

“As we have stated, the application of Israeli law to the territory which the Plan provides to be part of Israel is subject to the completion a mapping process by a joint Israeli-American committee,” he added. “Any unilateral action in advance of the completion of the committee process endangers the Plan & American recognition.”

Netanyahu, in public remarks Sunday at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting, mentioned the issue of West Bank annexation, indicating Israel had independently begun mapping territory, but did not directly comment on Friedman’s statement.

“In Washington, during my latest visit, we made history,” he said. “We brought an American plan according to which Israel will recognize our sovereignty in the Jordan Valley, the northern Dead Sea, all the [Israeli] communities in Judea and Samaria without exception — big or little — and large territories surrounding them.

“This requires precise mapping of these areas, the entire territory,” Netanyahu continued. “The work has begun, the Israeli team has already started, the train set out and this work will be completed.”

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

Netanyahu insisted the Trump administration would eventually back Israel annexation of these areas, but acknowledged it wouldn’t happen until the mapping process is complete.

“The US and we agreed that when this entire process is completed we’ll bring it to the government [for approval]. But the Americans are saying in the clearest manner: ‘We want to give you recognition and we’ll give you it when the entire process is complete,’” he said.

“Recognition is the main thing. We brought this, I brought this,” the premier added. “We don’t want to endanger this, we are working responsibility and intelligently.”

Immediately after Trump announced the release of his Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal during a White House ceremony attended by Netanyahu, the premier told reporters he planned to bring his plan to annex the Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements for cabinet approval within days.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd-R) attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on February 9, 2020. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AFP)

Since backing off from his initial pledge, Netanyahu has refrained from giving a timeline for annexation, but at a campaign event Tuesday he urged attendees to help him get reelected, saying that a victory would allow his Likud party to gain approval for the Trump peace plan.

Those remarks appeared to be an acknowledgement that annexation would not be on the table before the national vote.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu told settler leaders Thursday he was still working on some degree of annexation before the elections, according to participants in the meeting.

But the head of the umbrella organization of settlement mayors blasted Friedman’s remarks on Sunday, calling on Netanyahu to ignore the US warning and move forward with annexation plans as promised.

“The United States cannot prevent Israel from doing anything,” said David Elhayani, who also serves as the chairman of the Jordan Valley Regional Council.

He “called on the prime minister to fulfill his commitment to the residents of Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley to apply sovereignty before the elections and to do this as soon as possible.”

But not all of Elhayani’s Yesh Council colleagues reacted as critically. Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi called Friedman’s statement a “wake-up call for all of us,” and urged fellow settler leaders to cooperate with the government on the issue.

Revivi said it was “wrong” for Israel to take unilateral action at this time, adding that “Ambassador Friedman, in the name of the US administration, is presenting a rare opportunity to sit down with the Americans and hold discussions through an elected government to determine Israel’s future borders.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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