No final decision on Israeli annexation after 3 days of White House talks
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No final decision on Israeli annexation after 3 days of White House talks

US Ambassador Friedman, Mideast envoy Berkowitz set to return to Israel for more work, less than a week before Netanyahu’s July 1 target date to start process

White House adviser Jared Kushner speaks in the White House, on April 2, 2020 (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
White House adviser Jared Kushner speaks in the White House, on April 2, 2020 (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The White House has not made a final decision in a round of talks about whether to back Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank, a senior White House official said.

“There is yet no final decision on next steps for implementing the Trump plan,” the official said, adding only that the talks had been “productive.”

The discussions have concluded for the time being after three days, with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and US Mideast envoy Avi Berkowitz heading to Israel for more work on the issue.

The Times of Israel reported early this month that the White House was “highly unlikely” to green light Israeli annexation by July 1, that more work was needed on the mapping of the territories, and that Berkowitz and Jared Kushner would likely first come to Jerusalem to discuss outstanding issues.

This week’s White House discussions reportedly also included senior adviser Kushner and national security adviser Robert O’Brien. It was not clear whether US President Donald Trump was actively involved in the meetings.

A Channel 13 news report last week said Friedman, who flew back to the US for the meetings, strongly backs Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declared intention to go ahead with the move starting July 1, but Kushner was said to be more ambivalent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, center, and then-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, on February 24, 2020. (David Azagury/US Embassy Jerusalem)

Netanyahu has said he wants to annex the 132 West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley — the 30 percent of the territory allocated to Israel under the Trump administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

File: Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz, Special Assistant to the President Alexa Henning, Senior Advisor to President Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner and White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley walk out of the White House, May 8, 2020. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, via JTA)

The new government’s coalition deal allows Netanyahu to begin the process as early as July 1. However, US enthusiasm for such a move has appeared to cool amid vociferous opposition from American allies in the Middle East.

Concerned about the collateral damage that could follow from allowing Israel to move ahead with its plan, Washington is reportedly considering backing the annexation of only a handful of settlements close to Jerusalem.

“Ultimately, as the team approaches this thought of annexation, the main thing going through our heads is, ‘Does this in fact help advance the cause of peace?’ And therefore that is what will help drive a lot of the discussion,” a senior Trump administration official told Reuters in a report Monday evening.

The administration is also looking at other options, including a staged process in which Israel would start by declaring sovereignty only over several settlements in the Jerusalem area, the report said, citing an unnamed source.

The official noted that Washington has not ruled out Netanyahu’s larger annexation vision but is concerned that a large-scale, rapid, unilateral move by Israel could seal off any chance that the Palestinians may agree to discuss Trump’s peace plan, unveiled in January.

US President Donald Trump (right) and adviser Jared Kushner at the White House on April 2, 2020 (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The administration is also worried about increasing opposition to annexation coming from Jordan and US-allied Gulf States that have been building ties with Israel, the source explained.

Jordanian King Abdullah last week deemed unilateral annexation “unacceptable” in briefings to American lawmakers, and is expected to withdraw his ambassador, downgrade ties with Israel and reconsider the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty if Netanyahu goes ahead with such a move.

Channel 13 reported Thursday that Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen had visited Jordan within the last few days at Netanyahu’s request, where he met with the king and delivered an unspecified message from Netanyahu regarding annexation.

Another central issue in the White House deliberations is believed to be the internal disagreement in the Israeli coalition over annexation: While Netanyahu is vigorously championing the move, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi have repeatedly said the Trump plan should be implemented in coordination with Jordan and the Palestinians and should not damage Israel’s relations with its neighbors.

However, Gantz on Tuesday signaled he could back unilateral annexation of West Bank lands, citing persistent refusals by the Palestinians to reach a deal with Israel, while reiterating his demand that the move not endanger Israel’s existing peace agreements.

According to a report by the Kan public broadcaster Thursday, Gantz and Ashkenazi’s Blue and White party will hold a closed meeting Friday on the issue, with all party MKs required to attend.

Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White party and MK Gabi Ashkenazi at an election campaign event ahead of the March 2020 elections, in Kfar Saba on Feb 12, 2020. (Gili Yaari / Flash90)

Last week, Channel 13 news reported that Netanyahu presented Gantz and Ashkenazi with four scenarios for annexing West Bank lands, one of which was said to be a symbolic move rather than the full 30%. The report did not provide further details on the different scenarios. A subsequent Channel 12 report said, by contrast, that all four of Netanyahu’s maps provided for annexing all 132 settlements, and that the overall territory to be annexed in these four scenarios ranged from 12% to the full 30%.

As of last weekend, the Israel Defense Forces had not yet seen maps of the territories proposed for annexation, but reports Friday said Israeli security officials would be shown the maps this week.

A joint US-Israel committee has been mapping out the West Bank areas set to come under Israeli rule, and has not yet completed its work, having been delayed in part by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Thursday the UN’s Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov warned that annexation may fuel extremism, ignite a regional conflict and do irrevocable damage to Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Meanwhile, terror group Hamas issued a new threat that Israel would pay an “unprecedented price” if it annexes West Bank land, saying such a development would be a “declaration of war.” In an Arabic-language video message, Hamas spokesperson Abu Obeida said: “We will force the enemy to regret that decision.”

Also on Thursday, nearly 200 Democratic House members penned an open letter to the Israeli leadership, warning against the move.

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