Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that he has been in talks with the White House on a “historic” initiative to annex Israeli settlement areas in the West Bank.
“I can tell you that for a while now I’ve been talking about it with the Americans,” Netanyahu said during a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset.
“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.
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 considers them illegal under international law.
US President Donald Trump, in an interview published Sunday in the Israel Hayom daily, expressed concerns about Israeli settlement building, saying the enterprise complicates peacemaking, although his administration has been far less critical of the enterprise than was that of his predecessor Barack Obama.
Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has long been a supporter of settlements in the West Bank.
“The settlements are something that very much complicates and always have complicated making peace, so I think Israel has to be very careful with the settlements,” Trump said.
Trump has said he intends to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to the “ultimate deal” that would resolve the decades-long conflict, but in the interview he questioned whether negotiations were even possible for the time being.
“I don’t know frankly if we are going to even have talks. We will see what happens, but I think it is very foolish for the Palestinians and I also think it would be very foolish for the Israelis if they don’t make a deal,” Trump said. “It’s our only opportunity and it will never happen after this.”
A change on settlements would not be the first dramatic shift for the Trump administration.
Relations between Washington and the Palestinians have been severely strained since Trump’s December 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the American embassy there.
At the time, Trump stressed that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city, and called for no change in the status quo at the city’s holy sites. Afterward, however, he said several times that his decision had taken Jerusalem “off the table.”
Palestinian leaders say there can be no peace talks involving the US administration until its decision on the city, whose eastern neighborhoods they claim for a future capital, is reversed.
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.
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.
“In the 70th year of the rebirth of the State of Israel and after the 50th anniversary of the return of the Jewish people to its historic homeland in Judea and Samaria (West Bank)…we move to designate the status of these territories as an inseparable part of the sovereign State of Israel,” an excerpt of the legislation reads.
Netanyahu’s statement drew immediate condemnation from Joint (Arab) List head Ayman Odeh.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu said out loud, clearly today what we have known for years; that the Israeli government opposes peace and supports apartheid,” Odeh said. “The Netanyahu government’s web of lies are being torn apart when the prime minister declares that he is interested in annexing the West Bank, but of course not to grant citizenship to the millions of Palestinians living there.”
“This is a wake-up call to the international community and to the citizens of the state who aspire to live in peace. We are in the final moments when the vision of two states is still possible. We must stop Netanyahu’s settler government,” Odeh said.
But it also won praise from Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely.
“The coordination with the Americans that the prime minister mentioned in the Likud faction meeting is a significant and important step on the path to sovereignty.I congratulate the prime minister on this important move that could bring about a historic change,” sh said.
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.
The Ministerial Committee for Legislation is a body made up of ministers from each of the coalition parties and headed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Normally meeting each Sunday, the powerful committee decides how the coalition will vote on each proposal brought before the Knesset and, by determining government support or opposition, can effectively decide the fate of a bill before it even begins the legislative process in the Knesset.
Separately, the heads of each coalition party also meet weekly to make decisions on the week’s legislative agenda and determine whether certain coalition bills face votes in either the Ministerial Committee for Legislation or the Knesset.
Last Thursday, a spokesman for a senior member of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu had ordered the legislation be pulled from the panel’s agenda in order to provide time to coordinate the measure with the White House first.
In suggesting Monday that the bill be submitted as a government proposal, Netanyahu also appeared to be attempting to strip the legislation’s drafters — Kisch and Smotrich — of credit for the measure.
While not specifically mentioning the Sovereignty Bill, President Reuven Rivlin expressed his own support for the annexation of the entire West Bank at a conference in Jerusalem on Monday.
However, the president made clear that such a measure would also have to include full citizenship for all the Palestinians in the area.
For his part, Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay said Sunday that the passing of such a proposal would be tantamount to a “diplomatic terror attack.”