Palestinians blast Netanyahu claims of Israel-US talks on annexation

Abbas spokesman says step would ‘eliminate’ international efforts to revive peace process; Erekat charges that such talks amount to ‘land theft’ with ‘US complicity’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas (C) attends the "Jerusalem Conference as the Capital of the Islamic Youth" in the West Bank city of Ramallah on February 6, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI)
Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas (C) attends the "Jerusalem Conference as the Capital of the Islamic Youth" in the West Bank city of Ramallah on February 6, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI)

Slamming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that he is in talks with the US over Israeli settlement annexation, the spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Monday that such a step would “eliminate” all international efforts to revive the peace process.

The angry Palestinian reaction came amid Israeli attempts to walk back the claim and a flat-out denial from the White House.

In a statement carried by the PA’s official Wafa news agency, Nabil Abu Rudeineh argued that because the settlements are illegal under international law, any unilateral Israeli imposition of sovereignty “will not change anything.”

The PA’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, charged that such discussions, as described by Netanyahu, amount to “land theft” with “US complicity.”

A senior Israeli diplomatic official walked back Netanyahu’s remarks on the prime minister’s behalf hours after he made them at a Likud faction meeting.

Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat speaks at the Haaretz and New Israel Fund conference in New York City on December 13, 2015. (Amir Levy/ Flash90)

Then the prime minister said that he had been in talks with the White House on a “historic” initiative to annex Israeli settlement areas in the West Bank.

“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 then.

However, the senior diplomatic official later clarified that Netanyahu has not actually presented the Trump administration with specific proposals to annex the West Bank.

The official explained that since nothing formal was presented, the US “did not express support for the proposals.”

The official added 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.

A White House spokesman also denied Netanyahu’s comments, saying “reports that the United States discussed with Israel an annexation plan for the West Bank are false.”

US President Donald Trump (right) speaks with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on January 25, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm)

“The United States and Israel have never discussed such a proposal, and the president’s focus remains squarely on his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative,” the spokesman added, suggesting that Washington views such measures as damaging to its peace efforts.

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 regards them as illegal under international law.

Trump, in an interview published Sunday in the Israel Hayom daily, expressed concerns about Israeli settlement building, although his administration has yet to criticize the construction approval of any particular plan since he took office a year ago — a break from the previous Obama administration’s more critical attitude toward the issue.

The president added in the interview that he is “not necessarily sure” Israel is genuinely seeking to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians while saying that the Palestinians were not looking for peace.

Trump has previously denounced the Palestinians for what he sees as their unwillingness to negotiate, but he has largely refrained from criticizing Israel.

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.

Illustrative: Construction of new housing in the Israeli settlement of Kfar Adumim, September 25, 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

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.

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.

Last Thursday, a spokesman for a senior member of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu had ordered that 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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