Netanyahu, Israeli officials meet with US mapping team for West Bank annexation
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Netanyahu, Israeli officials meet with US mapping team for West Bank annexation

At gathering in Ariel settlement, PM says he will be ready to apply sovereignty ‘immediately’ after maps have been prepared

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, center, and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin during a meeting to discuss mapping extension of Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank, held in the Ariel settlement, February 24, 2020. (David Azagury / US Embassy Jerusalem)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, center, and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin during a meeting to discuss mapping extension of Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank, held in the Ariel settlement, February 24, 2020. (David Azagury / US Embassy Jerusalem)

The US members of a committee formed to map out areas of the West Bank that Israel plans to annex as part of the Trump administration’s peace plan met Monday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials as they pressed ahead with the project.

It was the first time that the two sides have met to work together on deciding which areas Israel will extend sovereignty to, a measure tantamount to annexation.

“The mapping is underway to prepare the way for extending sovereignty on these territories,” Netanyahu declared as the two delegations huddled together under temporary shelters amid pouring rain at the West Bank settlement of Ariel, where the meeting was held.

“We will do this as soon as possible,” the prime minister said.

Asked how soon after the mapping is completed Israel will apply sovereignty, Netanyahu replied, “As far as we are concerned, immediately,” and said he would bring it for cabinet approval right away.

The American members of the joint committee are US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, his adviser Aryeh Lightstone, and C. Scott Leith, senior adviser for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of the National Security Council.

Also at the meeting were members of the Israeli mapping committee Tourism and Immigration Minister Yariv Levin and Acting Director of the Prime Minister’s Office Ronen Peretz.

“In Israel rain is a blessing, and I hope that our efforts should be blessed as much as the rain is coming down right now,” Friedman declared before the meeting started, the US Embassy in Jerusalem said in a statement. “We have our team here, and we’re going to get to work right away. We hope to complete it as soon as possible, and complete it the right way for the State of Israel.”

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in the East Room of the White House on January 28, 2020, in Washington. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images/AFP)

Netanyahu has said Israel will extend sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and other areas of the West Bank only with the agreement of Washington. Washington has said that Israel must hold off on annexing areas of the West Bank until the committee concludes its work, which could take weeks or months.

Many settler leaders, along with Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, have been urging Netanyahu to immediately begin the process of extending sovereignty ever since Trump allowed for it in his peace plan, unveiled last month. But since Washington made it clear it wants Jerusalem to wait, Netanyahu has backed away from promises to speedily take the step.

The Palestinians have rejected the US peace plan, which envisions the creation of a Palestinian state in about 70 percent of the West Bank, a small handful of neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, most of Gaza and some areas of southern Israel — if the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, disarm Hamas and other terror groups in the coastal enclave, and fulfill other conditions.

The plan allows Israel to annex settlements, grants the Jewish state sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and overriding security control west of the Jordan River, and bars Palestinian refugees from settling in Israel. Israel has welcomed the proposal.

Following the publication of the peace proposal, there was confusion initially as to how quickly Israel could act on extending sovereignty.

Mere moments after the peace deal’s unveiling on January 28, Netanyahu told reporters that his cabinet would vote in favor of annexation the very next week. Friedman appeared to back that statement, telling reporters that “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.

But a short while later, the president’s senior adviser Jared Kushner, the peace plan’s chief author, apparently contradicted Friedman, making plain in a series of interviews that the White House expected Israel not to annex any areas before the work of the bilateral committee is completed.

Friedman has since fallen in line with Washington’s view of how things should proceed. Earlier this month, he appeared to warn the Israeli government against applying sovereignty over any parts of the West Bank before next week’s Knesset election, citing Trump’s mention of the bilateral mapping committee.

“I am not suggesting that the government of Israel should not do whatever it wants to do. Israel is a sovereign state. But people should know that if the president’s position is simply ignored then we’re not going to be in a position to go forward,” he said at a briefing at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a hawkish think tank.

“The president got up and he made a speech,” Friedman continued. “And he said there will be a committee and the committee will go through a process; the process will not last very long, but we want to go through a process.”

Friedman was referring to a statement Trump made during the festive unveiling of his peace plan at the White House. “We will form a joint committee with Israel to convert the conceptual map into a more detailed and calibrated rendering so that recognition can be immediately achieved,” the US president said at the time, standing next to Netanyahu.

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