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US support was contingent on Israeli formal adoption of plan

Netanyahu hits back at ‘baseless’ claim he shocked Trump with annexation declaration

Likud says ex-PM made announcement upon receiving letter from Trump giving him green light, countering Kushner book saying Netanyahu, ex-envoy Friedman went rogue

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

US President Donald Trump (left) and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu take part in an announcement of 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 President Donald Trump (left) and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu take part in an announcement of Trump's Middle East peace plan in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 28, 2020. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

The Likud party on Thursday hit back at ex-White House senior adviser Jared Kushner’s “utterly baseless” claim that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an uncoordinated declaration during the 2020 unveiling of the Trump peace plan that he would immediately annex large parts of the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s party said the ex-premier had exchanged letters with former president Donald Trump the day before the peace plan was released, with the latter “ma[king] clear that the US would support Israel’s declaration of sovereignty” and the Israeli premier writing that he planned to make the announcement “in the coming days.”

The Likud statement came four days after The Times of Israel published excerpts from Kushner’s forthcoming book in which the top aide recalled Netanyahu giving a “campaign speech” that “misrepresented our plan” so badly that he found himself “grabb[ing] my chair so intensely that my knuckles turned white.”

“Israel will apply its laws to the Jordan Valley, to all the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and to other areas that your plan designates as part of Israel and which the United States has agreed to recognize as part of Israel,” Netanyahu said in his speech that day, announcing plans to annex roughly 30 percent of the West Bank.

“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.

Kushner claimed then-US ambassador to Israel David Friedman had gone rogue and assured Netanyahu that the US would immediately back his annexation plan, without conveying this to anyone in the administration.

Then-US president Donald Trump, center, is flanked by then-ambassador to Israel David Friedman, left, and then-senior adviser Jared Kushner in the Oval Office on August 12, 2020. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

In his own memoir, Friedman wrote that Netanyahu’s announcement was the result of a misunderstanding regarding the immediacy of US backing for Israeli annexation. He told The Times of Israel earlier this year that “the accusation that I was running my own agenda with Netanyahu about [applying Israeli] sovereignty [to parts of the West Bank] and not letting… anyone know [is] 100% false.”

On Sunday, Friedman said he and Kushner “have different recollections of those hectic days” but that he stands by his account of what had taken place.

The Likud statement seemed to more closely align with the account of Friedman, a supporter of the settlement movement who has long expressed his backing for Israel declaring its sovereignty over the settlements.

“The allegation that prime minister Netanyahu surprised Jared Kushner and president Trump by announcing Israel’s intention to apply Israeli law to the 30 percent of Judea and Samaria envisioned in the Trump plan as sovereign Israeli territory is completely false,” Likud said.

“In fact, the day before the ceremony unveiling the Trump peace plan on January 28, 2020, there was an exchange of letters between prime minister Netanyahu and president Trump. President Trump’s letter made clear that the US would support Israel’s declaration of sovereignty over this territory and prime minister Netanyahu’s letter made clear that Israel would move forward with a declaration regarding sovereignty ‘in the coming days.'”

Two sources familiar with the matter confirmed the existence of the pair of letters, which traded Israel’s backing for Trump’s peace plan for US support for Israeli annexation. However, one source acknowledged that Trump’s letter made clear that a green light from the US was contingent on Israel “formally adopting detailed territorial plans” consistent with the peace plan’s conceptual map — something that Jerusalem had not yet done when Netanyahu made his announcement, and never went on to do either.

Israel also never formally annexed any of the territories that Netanyahu announced it would, agreeing to back down from the measure in exchange for normalizing relations with the United Arab Emirates under the Abraham Accords later that year.

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

The peace plan’s envisioning of a future Palestinian state was already receiving immense pushback from settler leaders, so the idea that Netanyahu was also going to have to formally adopt a plan that put limits on the expansion of settlements would certainly have drawn further outcry from the nationalist voters Likud was targeting in the imminent election campaign.

The Likud statement also noted that Trump, in his own speech at the ceremony, discussed the formation of a joint US-Israeli mapping committee that would convert the plan’s conceptual map “into a more detailed and calibrated rendering so that recognition can be immediately achieved.”

“The United States will recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory that my vision provides to be part of the State of Israel. Very important,” Trump said, though avoiding placing a timeline for that recognition.

“Thus the charge that prime minister Netanyahu surprised the president and his staff with an uncoordinated announcement on moving forward with sovereignty, and that such an announcement subverted the peace plan, is utterly baseless,” Likud added on Thursday.

Both Kushner’s office and Friedman declined requests to respond on the record.

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