No direct answer when asked if Israel has 'green light'

State Department: Annexation should be part of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

After Jordan’s king warns against Israel extending sovereignty in West Bank, spokesperson Morgan Ortagus cites importance of bringing ‘all parties to the table’ for negotiations

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus speaks at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, June 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
US State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus speaks at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, June 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Israeli deliberations about annexing parts of the West Bank should be part of discussions between Israel and the Palestinians on the Trump administration’s peace plan, the US State Department’s chief spokesperson said Friday.

The comments by Morgan Ortagus, made during a phone briefing with Israeli reporters, came after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a lightning trip to Jerusalem Wednesday for talks with Israeli leaders on a number of issues.

Pompeo did not specifically address questions during the trip about whether the US would support Israel unilaterally advancing annexation after July 1, as the coalition agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz allows the new government to do, but said Jerusalem has “the right and the obligation” to decide if and when it wants to annex.

“He [Pompeo] said that annexation is up to Israel,” Ortagus said, stressing that annexation was “certainly, by no means, the reason” for Pompeo’s trip. “We think these discussions should be a part of the peace process, part of President Trump’s Vision for Peace. So it should be part of discussions between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I don’t really have much more to say on it than that.”

Asked directly whether Israel still has a “green light” for unilateral annexation, especially since the Palestinians are proving “unwilling to consider the Trump peace plan,” or whether Israel should put annexation on hold, Ortagus did not give a direct yes or no answer. She said, rather, that the US administration has put out a “comprehensive” peace plan… We’re going to continue to push for this vision for peace that the president has. We have certainly by no means given up hope. In fact it will continue to be a major part of our foreign policy to press for the Palestinians to come to the table as a part of this peace plan, as a part of this process.”

She added: “There is a mapping committee that is led by Ambassador Friedman. And so I don’t have anything new to announce today other than just to reiterate the fact that all of these discussions relating to mapping and annexation we firmly believe should be a part of discussions between the Israelis and Palestinians working toward President Trump’s vision for peace.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lands in Israel for a one-day visit on May 13, 2020 (Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

The Palestinians have been boycotting the administration since US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there and have rejected the peace plan out of hand.

Key tenets of the proposal, namely Israel’s proposed extension of sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, have also been opposed internationally, with European Union foreign ministers meeting Friday to discuss responses if the Israeli government goes through with the move.

Ortagus was asked how the US would respond if the EU sanctioned Israel over annexation in the West Bank.

“We will continue to remain a steadfast friend and ally of the State of Israel. We have proven in this administration we will do that,” she said, pointing to the Jerusalem embassy move and Trump’s recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel as examples of US support.

She was also asked to address Jordanian King Abdullah II’s warning that annexation could lead to a “massive conflict” between Israel and his country.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II (R) is greeted by US President Donald Trump at the White House on June 25, 2018. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

“The United States has a close relationship with the state of Jordan. We know that Jordan plays a special role in the Middle East, especially their relationship with Israel,” Ortagus said. “What we want for both Israel and Jordan is the relationship that is not only strong on the security level, but that’s also strong at the diplomatic level and the economic level.

“We certainly understand that the king has expressed his concerns today and again that’s why we think it’s important to turn back to President’s Trump’s Vision for Peace and to bring all parties to the table to work toward this peace plan,” she added

During the briefing, Ortagus also addressed US concerns about Chinese investment in Israel.

“Whether we’re in Israel, whether we’re in the United Kingdom or India or Thailand or anywhere in the world, our message is very simple about the risk of Chinese investment,” she said, adding Israel should “look more closely” at creating a body to scrutinize foreign investment in the country.

While declining to comment on reported US concerns about a Chinese-linked firms bid to build a desalination plant in Israel, Ortagus warned many companies from China involved in technology and infrastructure projects were “beholden by law” to the ruling Communist Party of China.

“That is not a risk that the American people or the Israeli people should tolerate,” she said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and China’s President Xi Jinping (R) shake hands ahead of their talks at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on March 21, 2017. (AFP Photo/Pool/Etienne Oliveau)

While in Israel, Pompeo appeared to take a swipe at China, which the US is locked in a trade war with and has blamed for the coronavirus pandemic.

“You’re a great partner, you share information, unlike some other countries that try to obfuscate and hide that information,” Pompeo told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We’ll talk about that country too.”

China’s ambassador to Israel responded Friday, calling US concerns about Chinese investment in the country “absurd” and saying Beijing hoped its “Jewish friends” will not only succeed in defeating the virus but also the “political virus.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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