Knesset speaker vows to ‘fast-track’ any vote on West Bank annexation

Despite US envoy saying it may take time before move can go ahead, Edelstein tells Netanyahu Israel must seize opportunity following Trump plan

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein arrive for a joint event of the Knesset and the US Congress, celebrating 50 years since Jerusalem's reunification, at the Chagall state hall in the Knesset, on June 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein arrive for a joint event of the Knesset and the US Congress, celebrating 50 years since Jerusalem's reunification, at the Chagall state hall in the Knesset, on June 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Wednesday promised to “fast-track” any bill proposed to annex parts of the West Bank in the aftermath of the unveiling of US President Donald Trump’s peace plan.

The comment came amid reports that Israel’s caretaker cabinet would convene next Tuesday to vote on annexation, two days later than originally announced in order to allow time to prepare the proposal.

Speaking at an event in Eilat, Edelstein hailed the plan, saying it “completely changes the way the world was used to talk and think about the path to peace” and that Israel “must not miss this opportunity.”

Addressing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said: “If you return from Washington and ask to convene the Knesset plenum to make use of the US administration’s historic willingness and apply Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria — I will convene the plenum immediately.

“No matter the criticism, even if there are strong attacks, the correct thing will be done,” Edelstein added, expressing hope that the proposal would pass with a big majority.

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) attend a press conference in the East Room of the White House on January 28, 2020. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

However, Edelstein stressed that he opposes the Trump plan since it establishes a Palestinian state, gives Palestinians a capital in parts of East Jerusalem and demands a construction freeze in many settlements. But he added that he didn’t believe the Palestinian leadership would meet the conditions required for a state under the deal.

The Palestinian leadership, which has cut off ties with the Trump administration since it announced it would move the US embassy to Jerusalem, has already rejected the deal.

Edelstein’s statement was criticized by a member of the left-wing Labor-Gesher-Meretz party who pointed out the speaker’s recent reluctance to call a plenum session that would discuss establishing a panel to weigh Netanyahu’s immunity request, which he ended up withdrawing.

“It is saddening and disappointing to see that the Knesset speaker, who recently protested against breaking the rules of the game and turning the parliament into a circus on the eve of elections, is now willing to do the same himself,” said MK Revital Swid.

“There is no ‘fast track’ for unilateral diplomatic opportunistic steps weeks before we go to the polling stations. There is no legitimacy for a transitional government to implement the ‘deal of the century,'” she added.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (L) speaks with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin before US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announce Trump’s Middle East peace plan in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on January 28, 2020. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

US Ambassador to Israel Friedman suggested earlier Wednesday that it may take time before Israel can move forward with annexation plans for the Jordan Valley and any West Bank settlements, stressing that an Israeli-American committee to discuss the exact parameters of the ostensible annexation must be established first before Jerusalem can go ahead with its plans. On Tuesday, by contrast, Friedman had said that Israel was free to start annexing West Bank settlements right away.

Netanyahu had initially said he wanted to bring the annexation proposal for a vote at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, but Minister Yariv Levin said Wednesday that there were still several bureaucratic hurdles to leap, including “bringing the proposal before the attorney general and letting him consider the matter.”

A Likud official speaking on the condition of anonymity appeared to pour additional cold water on the possibility of an imminent annexation vote, saying “the PMO is working hard to prepare the [sovereignty cabinet] decision. This is complex work that includes maps and aerial photographs. We hope to complete it as soon as possible.”

It is unclear whether Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will green light such a move being made by a transitional government, which is largely limited from carrying out irreversible decisions.

“My point of view is that I need to help the government implement its policy and that has rules — restraint must be maintained during a transitional government,” said Mandelblit at an Institute for International Security Studies conference on Tuesday hours before Trump released his peace plan that envisioned thirty percent of the West Bank, including all Israeli settlements coming under full Israeli sovereignty. 

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a farewell ceremony held for outgoing State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem on December 18, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“If a request is filed, I will examine it from a legal perspective,” he said in response to a question on whether he would allow the cabinet to move forward with annexation. “I don’t rule anything out. I will hear what the request is and what the explanation is for the urgency, and I will decide on that basis.”

The Ynet news site cited an unsourced estimation that Mandelblit would likely say the annexation was legal, but point out legal difficulties in making such a dramatic decision. It quoted a decision from almost 20 years ago, when then-attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein told prime minister Ehud Barak that there was no legal impediment to holding negotiations with the Palestinians during a transitional government, but that the timing was nevertheless inappropriate.

Netanyahu has vowed to push ahead with annexing territories that Israel would keep under the US peace plan unveiled Tuesday, despite international opposition outside the US.

Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, has said it would only support implementing the contours of the plan after the March 2 election. Gantz said Wednesday that he would bring the plan before the Knesset plenum next week for a vote.

Breaking with past US administrations, the plan envisions the creation of a Palestinian state in part of the West Bank, a handful of neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and some areas of southern Israel — on condition that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and Hamas and other terror groups in the Gaza Strip disarm.

The plan also calls for allowing Israel to annex settlements, granting the Jewish state sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and ongoing overall security control west of the Jordan River, and barring Palestinians from entering Israel as refugees.

Raphael Ahren and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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