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Senior Trump aides said to begin informal talks on whether to back annexation

Top officials reportedly start discussions without the US president, with no conclusions reached at end of initial meeting

US President Donald Trump points to a reporter to ask a question as he speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Thursday, April 2, 2020, in Washington, as White House adviser Jared Kushner listens. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
US President Donald Trump points to a reporter to ask a question as he speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Thursday, April 2, 2020, in Washington, as White House adviser Jared Kushner listens. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Senior aides to US President Donald Trump on Tuesday began discussions on the administration’s position on Israel’s planned annexation of parts of the West Bank, a US official and a person familiar with the deliberations told the Reuters news agency.

The White House discussions reportedly included senior adviser Jared Kushner, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, the US official said.

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

Trump did not attend the Tuesday meeting, but may play a more active role in the talks later in the week, American sources told Reuters.

This February 18, 2020, photo shows the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Efraim in the hills overlooking the Jordan Valley. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The officials instead held what one source called “informal internal discussions,” with no decisions reached at the conclusion of the meeting. A US official said that Kushner participated in the discussions before leaving on a trip to Arizona with Trump.

Officials in the Trump administration are set to decide this week on whether to approve Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declared plan to start annexing the 132 West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley — the 30 percent of the territory allocated to Israel under the administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

Netanyahu has vowed 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.

US President Donald Trump (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, January 27, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

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.

The administration is also worried about increasing opposition to annexation coming from Jordan and US-allied Gulf States that have been unobtrusively 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.

In addition, Jordanian Ambassador Ghassan Majali has been warning diplomatic circles that if Israel moves forward with its planned extension of sovereignty, his country may recall him from Tel Aviv in protest, Army Radio reported Wednesday.

Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Benny Gantz, both wearing protective masks due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 7, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/Pool via AP)

A central issue in the White House meetings is likely 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 said the Trump plan should be implemented in coordination with Jordan and the Palestinians.

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.

But he didn’t specify a date for when he would support a unilateral move or whether he would back starting the annexation process next week.

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.

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, February 24, 2020. (David Azagury/US Embassy Jerusalem)

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.

Under the coalition deal between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White, Netanyahu can begin annexing settlements and the Jordan Valley from July 1. The Trump administration initially indicated it would not oppose Netanyahu’s declared plans to do so, providing Israel accepts its peace plan, which conditionally provides for a Palestinian state on the remaining 70% of the territory. So far the Palestinians have rejected the entire plan.

Netanyahu’s vows to push ahead with unilateral annexation have been condemned internationally, with European and Arab states, as well as senior members of the US Democratic Party, warning the Israeli government against doing so.

More than a thousand lawmakers from across Europe on Tuesday signed a statement against Israel’s planned annexation, urging decisive action to prevent the move and punitive measures if it goes ahead.

On Monday, more than 100 Republican members of the US House of Representatives signed a letter to Netanyahu stressing their belief that “Israel has the right to make sovereign decisions independent of outside pressure, and to express our support for you as you make such decisions in your capacity as Israel’s democratically-elected prime minister.”

The lawmakers reaffirmed “Israel’s right to sovereignty and defensible borders,” they wrote in the letter.

Meanwhile, some 170 House Democrats, including majority leader Steny Hoyer, signed a letter warning of the dangers presented by annexation.

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