US calls the claim 'false'

Israeli official, White House deny PM discussed settlement annexation with Trump

Hours after Netanyahu says ‘for a while now I’ve been talking about it’ with the Americans, senior diplomatic official says no specific proposals have been brought to Washington

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset on February 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset on February 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not presented the Trump administration with specific proposals to annex the West Bank, a senior Israeli official was forced to clarify on Monday, just hours after the prime minister said he has been talking to the American about it “for a while.” The White House subsequently also denied there had been such discussions.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not present the US administration with specific proposals for West Bank annexation,” the official said, adding that since nothing formal was presented, the US “did not express support for the proposals.”

The official clarified that “Israel updated the US on various proposals that are being brought up in the Knesset, and the US expressed its clear position that it hopes to present [US] President [Donald] Trump’s peace plan.”

“Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position is that if the Palestinians continue to refuse negotiating peace — Israel will present its own alternatives,” the official added.

The Prime Minister’s Office also put out a clarification, echoing these words.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu updated the Americans on initiatives being presented in the Knesset, the Americans stated their unequivocal view that they are committed to furthering President Trump’s peace plan,” the statement said.

In a rare, on-record response to comments by the Israeli prime minister, White House spokesman Josh Raffel flatly denied the Netanyahu claim.

“Reports that the United States discussed with Israel an annexation plan for the West Bank are false,” Raffel said. “The United States and Israel have never discussed such a proposal, and the President’s focus remains squarely on his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.”

Hours earlier, Netanyahu had announced at a Likud faction meeting that he has been in talks with the White House on a “historic” initiative to annex Israeli settlement areas in the West Bank.

“I can tell you that for a while now I’ve been talking about it with the Americans,” Netanyahu said during the faction meeting in the Knesset.

“I’m guided by two principles in this issue… optimal coordination with the Americans, whose relationship with us is a strategic asset for Israel and the settlement movement; and the fact that it must be a government initiative rather than a private one because it would be a historic move,” he added.

Getting US backing for such a move would be a major shift in policy for the Americans, who have long considered the settlements an impediment to peace, while most of the international community considers them illegal under international law.

The city of Ma’ale Adumim, one of the largest Israeli settlements in the West Bank. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Trump, in an interview published Sunday in the Israel Hayom daily, expressed concerns about Israeli settlement building, saying the enterprise complicates peacemaking, although his administration has been far less critical of the enterprise than was that of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has long been a supporter of settlements in the West Bank.

American Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attends a meeting of the lobby for Israel–United States relations at the Knesset, July 25, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The settlements are something that very much complicates and always have complicated making peace, so I think Israel has to be very careful with the settlements,” Trump said.

Trump has said he intends to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to the “ultimate deal” that would resolve the decades-long conflict, but in the interview he questioned whether negotiations were even possible for the time being.

“I don’t know frankly if we are going to even have talks. We will see what happens, but I think it is very foolish for the Palestinians and I also think it would be very foolish for the Israelis if they don’t make a deal,” Trump said. “It’s our only opportunity and it will never happen after this.”

A change on settlements would not be the first dramatic shift for the Trump administration.

Relations between Washington and the Palestinians have been severely strained since Trump’s December 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the American embassy there.

At the time, Trump stressed that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city, and called for no change in the status quo at the city’s holy sites. Afterward, however, he said several times that his decision had taken Jerusalem “off the table.”

Palestinian leaders say there can be no peace talks involving the US administration until its decision on the city, whose eastern neighborhoods they claim for a future capital, is reversed.

Netanyahu’s remarks came as lawmakers were seeking to advance legislation that would apply Israeli sovereignty over all areas of Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

Israel captured the West Bank, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and has applied sovereignty over the Golan and Jerusalem, in moves not recognized by the international community, including the US.

Likud MK Yoav Kisch (center) speaks with Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich (right) at the Knesset on November 13, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“In the 70th year of the rebirth of the State of Israel and after the 50th anniversary of the return of the Jewish people to its historic homeland in Judea and Samaria (West Bank)…we move to designate the status of these territories as an inseparable part of the sovereign State of Israel,” an excerpt of the legislation reads.

But the so-called Sovereignty Bill hit a snag Sunday, when the heads of coalition parties pulled the proposal — drafted by Yoav Kisch (Likud) and Bezalel Smotrich (Jewish Home) — from the agenda of a meeting on the coming week’s legislative timetable.

A statement explaining the move cited the security situation on Israel’s northern border as well as a need to coordinate the measure with the relevant diplomatic channels.

The legislation will likely be pushed off until next week’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation meeting.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation is a body made up of ministers from each of the coalition parties and headed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Normally meeting each Sunday, the powerful committee decides how the coalition will vote on each proposal brought before the Knesset, and, by determining government support or opposition, can effectively decide the fate of a bill before it even begins the legislative process in the Knesset.

President Reuven Rivlin speaks at the 15th annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group, on February 12, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Separately, the heads of each coalition party also meet weekly to make decisions on the week’s legislative agenda and determine whether certain coalition bills face votes in either the Ministerial Committee for Legislation or the Knesset.

Last Thursday, a spokesman for a senior member of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu had ordered the legislation be pulled from the panel’s agenda in order to provide time to coordinate the measure with the White House first.

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