WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump misspoke Thursday when he said that Israel was “suspending settlements in the West Bank” as part of the historic agreement between the Jewish state and the United Arab Emirates to establish fully normalized relations.
The Times of Israel was told Friday that the president meant to say that Israel was suspending plans to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank, as he specified in other comments at the same press briefing, and as set out in the joint press release issued hours earlier by Israel, the UAE and the United States.
Reading from prepared remarks at the start of the Thursday press briefing, Trump said 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 have been a highly dramatic freeze, however, and The Times of Israel reported on Thursday that it seemed more likely that he had intended to say Israel was “suspending annexation” or possibly “suspending annexation of the settlements.”
On Israel’s primetime Channel 12 news on Friday night, analyst Amnon Abramovich, citing the president’s remark, said Jerusalem had agreed to a moratorium on settlement activity in the West Bank.
Netanyahu once agreed to a 10-month freeze during the Obama administration’s peacemaking efforts, but has made no such commitment as part of the Trump peace bid, nor has the administration asked that he do so.
In fact, while the official White House transcript of the press briefing also shows that the president made the comment, The Times of Israel confirmed on Friday that the president simply misspoke.
Netanyahu is already being heavily criticized by settler leaders and right-wing legislators for agreeing, as part of the deal with the UAE, to suspend his plan to annex some 30 percent of the West Bank.
He has insisted that he ultimately still intends to go ahead with the move, in full coordination with the US, but right-wing opponents have asserted that this is mere lip-service.
“There is no change to our plans to apply sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, in coordination with the US,” Netanyahu said late Thursday. “I remain committed to that.”
Trump had merely asked him to “temporarily halt” his annexation plans, Netanyahu added.
Netanyahu has vowed repeatedly to annex all of the settlements and the entire Jordan Valley — territory that the Trump White House allocated to Israel under its Israeli-Palestinian plan, which conditionally envisions a Palestinian state in the remaining territory with land swaps.
Trump referred to that suspension of the annexation plan several times at his press briefing. He said first 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 Netanyahu’s declaration hours earlier that it “remains on the table.”
Trump’s ambassador to Israel also said it was “off the table now, but it’s not off the table permanently.”
The Israeli premier had intended to move ahead with the proposal on July 1, but the plan stalled when Netanyahu did not get the green light to move forward from the Trump administration.
Thursday’s historic deal, the first for a Gulf state, marked the third peace agreement Israel has struck with an Arab country, after Egypt and Jordan. Trump said he hoped to host a signing ceremony in about three weeks.
In the 24 hours since the bombshell announcement, there have already been rumblings that more Arab states will follow in UAE’s footsteps.
The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner said that there was a “very good chance” that more deals will be announced in the coming 90 days. Netanyahu also predicted a widening circle of peace.
Senior Israeli officials reportedly said Thursday that they are in advanced talks with Bahrain about normalizing ties. A senior American official also said that Oman was in the mix, according to a report from the Kan public broadcaster.