Saudis pushed US to stop merger of Jerusalem, West Bank settlements – report

Diplomatic efforts urged a delay in Israeli ministerial committee vote on bill to expand capital into contested territory

View of neighborhoods in Ma'ale Adumim, near Jerusalem, October 3, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
View of neighborhoods in Ma'ale Adumim, near Jerusalem, October 3, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Saudi Arabia applied diplomatic pressure on Israel via the US to delay a vote on a controversial bill that aims to expand the Jerusalem municipality to include a number of West Bank settlements, the Hebrew news site Ynet reported Tuesday.

A senior White House source said that Saudi Arabia raised the so-called Jerusalem expansion bill during talks with the US that also touched on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the website reported, citing the Saudi-based Al-Watan newspaper.

The diplomatic efforts, along with US opposition to the bill, led to a delay of a ministerial vote on the legislation that was planned for the beginning of the week.

There are also domestic reasons for the delay of the bill. It still lacks a majority in the Knesset, according to coalition sources, and has also fallen prey to a two-week-old coalition kerfuffle between the ruling Likud party and its coalition partner Jewish Home that led to a freezing of multiple bills in the cabinet and Knesset.

On Monday, the Palestinian Al-Ayyam newspaper reported that a senior US official told the daily that the Trump administration is continuing to work with Israel and the Palestinians toward reaching a peace agreement, but will not impose a deal on the two sides.

MK David Bitan, the Likud party’s parliamentary whip and a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Army Radio on Sunday that the vote, which was scheduled to be held during the key Ministerial Committee for Legislation meeting on Sunday, was delayed because “there is American pressure claiming this is annexation.”

A senior US official later told the Times of Israel that “it’s fair to say that the US is discouraging actions that it believes will unduly distract the principals from focusing on the advancement of peace negotiations. The Jerusalem expansion bill was considered by the administration to be one of those actions.”

The bill aims to solidify the city’s Jewish majority, but stops short of formal annexation, making the practical implications unclear. The bill says the communities would be considered “daughter municipalities” of Jerusalem.

Netanyahu had previously indicated that he would give his backing for the proposal to absorb Ma’ale Adumim, Beitar Illit and Efrat, along with the Etzion bloc of settlements, into the Jerusalem municipality.

The Palestinians claim both East Jerusalem and the West Bank, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war, as part of their future state, a position that has wide international backing. Israel annexed East Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally. Israeli leaders on both the left and the right maintain that the largest settlement blocs in the West Bank will become part of Israel via land swaps under any future peace deal.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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