US President Donald Trump said on Thursday that Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank was “more than just off the table” and that Israel had agreed not to carry it out — in a contradiction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration hours earlier that it “remains on the table.”
But the president then confusingly said that while that was the situation “right now,” he couldn’t talk about “some time in the future,” and his ambassador to Israel said it was “off the table now, but it’s not off the table permanently.”
Trump also said, in earlier prepared remarks at the same press briefing, that Israel was “suspending settlements in the West Bank, which is a big deal, a bold step toward achieving peace.” He did not elaborate on what would be a highly dramatic freeze, however, and it seemed more likely that he had intended to say that Israel was “suspending annexation” or possibly “suspending annexation of the settlements.”
Following the historic peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Trump said, other countries were already coming forward to follow the UAE’s lead.
“They’re going to have peace in the Middle East. It’ll be fantastic,” Trump said.
Trump praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the UAE’s de-facto leader Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed as “fantastic” partners who had demonstrated “vision and leadership.”
“I look forward to hosting them at the White House very soon to formally sign the agreement,” he told reporters. “We’ll probably be doing it over the next, I would say, three weeks.”
The comments came hours after Israel and the UAE announced the “full normalization of relations” between them, in a joint statement with the US first released by the White House.
“As a result of this diplomatic breakthrough, and at the request of President Trump with the support of the United Arab Emirates, Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the President’s Vision for Peace and focus its efforts now on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world,” the statement said.
Hailing the agreement in Jerusalem soon afterwards, Netanyahu said it would open a “new era of relations” between Israel and the Arab world, but clarified that he remained committed to extending Israeli sovereignty into the West Bank, in full coordination with the US.
Trump had asked for a “temporary halt” to the move, the Israeli prime minister said, but the issue of applying sovereignty in Judea and Samaria “remains on the table. I’m the one who put it on the table… I did not take sovereignty off the table.”
When pushed by reporters on the issue of annexation, Trump said the move was, “Not off the table, no. It’s something they’ve discussed but Israel has agreed not to do that, more than just off the table, they’ve agreed not to do it, and I think that was very important and I think it was a great concession by Israel.”
“Right now all I can say, it’s off the table, so I can’t talk about some time into the future. That’s a big statement but right now it’s off the table,” Trumps went on.
Standing in the room, the US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman sought to clarify the situation: “The word ‘suspend’ was chosen carefully by all the parties. Suspend by definition, look it up, means temporary halt. It’s off the table now but it’s not off the table permanently,” the ambassador said.
When asked if the US had requested that Israel abandon its annexation plans, Friedman said, “No, this is a temporary process, there’s been no request.”
“We’re putting all our eggs into the basket of peace,” Friedman said. “We’ve prioritized peace over the sovereignty movement, but it’s not off the table, it’s just something that will be deferred until we give peace every single chance.”
“I think you can’t do both at the same time. So I think again, prioritize peace, sovereignty, after peace has been given every opportunity, turn to sovereignty. I don’t think the two could have been done at the same time,” Friedman said.
In announcing the accord, Trump said it would allow many Muslims to visit historic sites in Israel and to “peacefully pray at the Al Aqsa mosque, which is very important to them, which they’ve wanted to have access to for many many decades.”
“After half a century, Israel and the United Arab Emirates will fully normalize their diplomatic relations. Nobody thought that this was something that could happen for a long time. This is the most important diplomatic breakthrough since the Egypt-Israel peace agreement was signed over 40 years ago,” the president said.